Title: From Yesterday
Fandom: Supernatural
Author: gaelicspirit
Characters: Dean, Sam, and OCs
Disclaimer/Summary: See Part 1: Prologue

Author's Note: Apologies for this being slightly tardy. If it helps, it's the longest chapter yet.

Thanks so much for your continued reading – both the lurkers and the reviewers. I hope you are as entertained reading this story as I have been writing it. I so enjoy spending time with these characters. *smile*


The smell of sulfur permeated everything.

He should have been used to it by now, but every time someone new was brought to the rack, the stench slammed into him, triggering every hunter reflex that hadn't yet been burned out of him. He forced himself to maintain an impassive expression; even distaste would trigger a reaction. It was better to simply turn completely off inside. It was the only way to survive the killing.

Every day had become a repeat of the one before. Blood and screams. Cutting just right to pull the most pain from the moment. He had become so good at it they didn't even bother to observe him anymore. They simply expected results. And Dean had always been one to provide results. He'd stopped counting the days, not like he had when he'd been the one on the rack. He didn't want to know how much time had passed because he was no longer resisting. He'd succumbed and the sooner everything melded into the same Hell, the sooner he'd lose himself completely.

It was the sound that alerted him to something being different.

The screams had stopped. For a moment, he could hear nothing. Not even his own heart beating, which he knew it still did because he'd seen it for himself when they'd ripped it out of his chest with gore-covered claws.

And then the demons shrieked.

Dean went to his knees, the knife that had been so at home in his hand clattering to the floor. The sound of rage echoed through Hell and Dean shook with the force of it. The body on the rack hung loosely from the hooks, his job already complete. His face, his arms, his hands were covered with blood that had sprayed on him as he'd completed their latest request.

Maybe this is it…maybe they're done with me…maybe I'm finally going to die.

The shrieking intensified and he felt the walls around him shake. Pushing away from what he knew was the door to the room where he'd been sequestered, Dean put his back to one of the walls, having been too often torn apart from behind to expose that vulnerable part of him now. He'd bargained to stop the pain, but if there was one thing he knew was fundamentally true in whatever realm he existed it was that demons lie. At any time, Allistair could strap him back on that rack and take him apart piece by piece for his own sadistic pleasure.

He wasn't expecting the light.

There had been nothing but darkness – extreme heat and extreme cold, but never light. Nothing to break up the alternating smothering quiet and constant screaming.

When the light hit him, Dean pulled back, away, pain unlike the torture he'd lived through the last forty years searing his eyes. He cried out, reacting as he hadn't allowed himself to for years. The light became a figure with terrible blue eyes and wings to span the length of the room. Dean pushed to his feet, his body trembling in reaction to the light.

"Dean Winchester."

Dean simply blinked, eyes watering, head tilted to the side to try to see around the light.

"You are needed."

No…no more.

He'd done enough; he'd killed enough. They could not get him to do anything else. He'd go back on the rack first. He shook his head, unable to get his voice to obey.

"You are needed," the figure repeated, and Dean saw it reach for him.

Lifting his hands in instinctive denial and protection, Dean saw them in the light that cut through the thick dark that had wrapped around him for so long. They were coated in blood – another soul's blood.

A soul he had torn apart.

"No," Dean whispered, taking a step back.

The figure wasn't dissuaded, however, and stepped forward, its hand going to Dean's shoulder. The light seemed to rip through him, heat cutting like the blades Allistair loved to wield. It was perfect and terrible and like nothing Dean had ever experienced in forty years of Hell.

And he screamed.

"Dean!"

The hand was on his shoulder, branding him. Searing into him and marking him forever. He couldn't back away, couldn't escape.

"Dean, hey! Easy, man, it's okay!"

That voice…it wasn't from the figure of light. It…actually didn't hurt to hear it.

He froze, listening for it again.

"That's it, just take a breath."

Dean cautiously opened his eyes. For a moment everything was blurred, shifting in and out of focus. The voice continued, a soft, almost crooning sound that he latched onto, pulling himself from the disorienting darkness of the dream into soft, muted reality.

Virgil's hand was on his shoulder, bracing him just where Castiel's mark had been. Looking blearily around, Dean realized he was in a bed, the room around him filled with ambient light. He'd pushed himself high in the bed to get away from the hand on his shoulder, bunching pillows behind him in an effort to escape.

He realized his hands were out; his right, he saw, still covered in blood.

Instinctively, he wiped it on the covers over his legs. The blood smeared against the white of the sheet, but Virgil seemed unconcerned. He was staring at Dean with a calculated gaze, waiting until Dean slowly uncoiled before taking his hand away.

"You back with me?"

Dean swallowed and nodded, sniffing as he dragged his left hand down his face, pulling the oxygen cannula from his nose. "Where am I?"

"Idaho Springs Medical Clinic," Virgil said, slowly straightening up and checking something on a machine next to Dean's bed.

"Where the hell's Idaho Springs?" Dean asked, sinking back into the bed a bit.

Now that he wasn't doing a Spiderman impression and climbing the walls to get away from Virgil, he was starting feel why he was in a medical clinic. He ached pretty much everywhere, though the real pain seemed to be concentrated mainly on his side.

"About ten miles north of Argo. Nearest medical facility to head to when you get yourself shish-kabobed by an ancient druid monster."

Dean dropped his head back against the pillows, closing his eyes and biting back a groan. "They specialize in monsters here?"

"Not really," Virgil said, adjusting Dean's IV before sitting down on the chair next to Dean's bed. "But they had stuff like blood and antibiotics, so I figured you'd be cool with it."

Dean peered at their friend. "Where's Sam?"

"He's sleeping," Virgil told him, handing him a cup of water with a straw, and steadying it as Dean drank. "Brenna and I were out in the waiting room when I heard your heart monitor going nuts."

"Bad dream," Dean muttered, trying not to think about it.

"Figured." Virgil looked away, then back at him. "I have an idea for how to help with that."

"Hunter's anonymous?" Dean guessed, raising an eyebrow tiredly.

"No," Virgil said, shaking his head with a small grin. "No group sharing, I promise. Thinking something more Dean Winchester-esque. Let me make a few calls and I'll get back to you."

Dean frowned, lifting the sheet to check out his side. His chest was bare save the thick, white bandages that covered his middle and wrapped around his back. His abdominal muscles protested his twisting to see the extent of the damage, so he relaxed back against the pillows, absentmindedly rubbing at the scars on his left eye.

"Y'know, some people collect stamps," Virgil commented dryly, watching Dean. "But not you. You collect scars."

"Not on purpose," Dean protested.

"You sure about that?"

Dean tried to push himself up in the bed, but found it difficult to do so without actually moving. Virgil expertly reached behind him and hooked his hands beneath Dean's shoulders, propping him up a bit higher in the bed and adjusting his pillows.

"I'm sure I didn't ask some druid stick monster to filet me."

Virgil sat back, rubbing his neck. "Sam told us you guys had retired," he told Dean. "Said you had a house and regular jobs and everything. Until I called."

Dean looked around the room for a clock. "How long have I been here?"

"Almost 18 hours," Virgil informed him.

Dean blinked in astonishment. He hadn't slept more than 5 hours at a time since Stull. Eighteen hours seemed unbelievable. He touched his scars again.

"They cleaned you up and stitched you up, but you spiked a fever," Virgil told him. "Gave you a bolus of antibiotics, but you had crazy reactions to the pain meds. You remember any of that?"

Dean frowned, eyes darting across the blanket that covered his lap, trying to remember. He rubbed the top of his head. "Nothing."

"You scared a few of the doctors…said some…pretty intense stuff. Luckily," Virgil lifted a shoulder, "Hell is apparently not that much different from war. It was fairly easy to convince the docs that you were a soldier. 'Cause," Virgil leveled his eyes on Dean, "you pretty much are."

"Sam okay?" Dean asked, wondering what his brother thought about that display.

"His ankle's good – couple stitches, nothing to worry about," Virgil leaned back in the chair and propped his feet up on the edge of Dean's bed, the 'C' in the Converse logo on the bottom catching Dean's eye. "He's got some bruising on his chest and arms, but apparently it's nothing he hasn't dealt with before. The taser burns are going to be sensitive for a while. He was plenty worried about you, though."

"Did he…," Dean felt his brow pucker as he searched for the right word, "connect with me?"

Virgil shook his head. "He was careful."

Dean exhaled. Sam had seen enough Hell. He didn't want his brother carrying that around with him.

"Brenna seemed to know, though," Virgil told him.

Dean rolled his lips against his teeth, looking away. He knew she'd seen something back in the mine museum. Something that had made her scream. He was afraid he knew what it was now: she'd seen him as the demon he'd become. She'd seen him torturing souls.

"Yeah," Dean replied huskily.

"Sam's in the next room," Virgil reassured him. "Told him if he didn't get some sleep I was going to put sleeping pills in his coffee."

Dean gave Virgil a side-long glance. "You wouldn't."

"Wanna bet?"

Dean chuckled, then pressed on his tender side. "How long I gotta stay here?"

"You were over a pint low," Virgil informed him. "Between that, the meds, and your fever, you're in here for at least another 24 hours. And then," Virgil sat forward, letting his sneakers slap against the floor, "you're gonna need to lay low somewhere before you guys get back on the road. Last thing you want is for those stitches to open up again."

"You my doc?" Dean half-grinned.

"No," Virgil shook his head, "but I'll do in a pinch."

"Yeah," Dean nodded. "You will." He looked at his right hand, the blood having dried, caking into the raised scar and the grooves of his finger joints.

"There's nothing there, you know," Virgil said quietly.

"I know," Dean whispered. "But I still see it."

"Maybe one day you'll let yourself off the hook."

Dean winced at Virgil's choice of words, knowing the paramedic could have no way of knowing how literal his phrasing could be taken. He tried to push himself up in the bed once more, but was surprised at how his arms trembled from the effort.

"Where're you going?" Virgil asked, frowning.

Sweat broke out across Dean's forehead from the effort. "Gotta pee."

"You can ask for help, you know."

"Think that's one thing I can do on my own, thanks," Dean grumbled, tugging the covers off his legs.

"Okay, fine," Virgil sat back, watching.

Dean managed to get his legs over the edge of the bed and slumped over, holding a hand against his bandaged side. He felt his heartbeat in the wound and tried to breathe shallowly through the pain. As he began to shift off the bed, however, he realized his hand was tethered to an IV pole on the right side of the bed and there were wires going from his chest to a machine on the left side of his bed.

"Dammit."

"Want help now?"

Dean glowered at Virgil a moment, then closed his eyes tiredly. "Yes."

Virgil disengaged the leads to the heart monitor and moved the IV pole around the end of the bed, then stood patiently waiting as Dean got to his feet. His hand darted out to steady Dean at the elbow as the world settled down around him; thankfully, Dean found he was able to walk to the bathroom and take care of business with the door mostly shut. He made it back to the bed, his entire body trembling, and silently accepted Virgil's aid in settling back against the pillows, the covers once more pulled up over his bandages.

"Y'know, I've seen a lot of injuries in my line of work," Virgil said, not looking at Dean as he adjusted the settings on the machine next to him, then leaning over to remove the sticky leads that had attached Dean to the monitor. Dean winced as Virgil pulled the leads from his skin, but said nothing as he listened.

"I've pulled men out of burning buildings. I've resuscitated little kids who nearly drowned at a pool. I've untangled people from cars that look like wadded up tin foil…. And I can safely say I've never encountered anything like what you and your brother put yourselves through."

"Perks of the job," Dean mumbled, letting his head drop back once more, closing burning eyes.

"If these are the perks, I'd hate to see the benefits package," Virgil muttered. "Your medical record is etched into your skin."

"What's going on back in Argo?" Dean asked, deflecting the attention from himself. "They dig the Smith's out?"

Virgil sat down once more, leaning forward and propping his elbows on his knees as he exhaled a tired, unamused laugh. Before answering, he pulled his red hat from his head, rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand, then tugged it back on. Dean thought he looked tired and decided to tell him so.

"You're not winning any magazine covers yourself, y'know," Virgil retorted. "And it's been a long coupla days."

"Yeah, I know," Dean replied quietly.

"Maddox was forced to call in state officials," Virgil told him, "because of Reynolds. And because one coroner couldn't handle all the bodies."

"What'd he tell them?"

"Oh, y'know," Virgil shrugged. "Your basic serial killer scenario. They're excavating the closed-off part of the mine now. Sam told them about the other bodies still in there from twenty years ago and the Staties are demanding to know why the hell no one went in after those guys back then."

"What's the answer?" Dean asked, having wondered that same thing himself.

Virgil shrugged. "Anyone who knows ain't talking, and those who are talking don't know. This town's secrets have secrets, man."

"What are they going to do about me and Sam?" Dean asked, bracing himself for another round of police questioning like he'd faced after Stull.

"Nothing," Virgil replied. "Far as Maddox is concerned, the less the Staties know about you and your brother, the better. No one is ready to talk druid witches and you two pretty much showed up the entire sheriff's department."

"So…we can go?"

"When you're healed up," Virgil nodded, his eyes shifting to something off in Dean's blindside. "If you want to, that is."

Dean turned his head to follow Virgil's line of sight and saw Brenna leaning against the doorway, arms crossed over her chest. A worried frown creased her forehead and her eyes looked tired as she rested them on Virgil.

"Everything okay?"

Virgil nodded at Dean. "Think so."

"Can I come in?" Brenna asked, this time looking at Dean.

"Uh, sure," Dean replied, glancing uncomfortably over at Virgil before looking back at Brenna.

He hadn't been alone with the two of them since discovering Sam was missing; he had a distinct feeling of missing time. Brenna stepped up to the bed, her bottom lip caught in her teeth as she worked through what she wanted to say next. Dean traced her form with his gaze, following her extended arm to where she worried the ridges along the blanket, her eyes downcast.

"I'll, uh…go…check on Sam," Virgil said, clearing his throat and standing.

"Virge, wait," Brenna said, not looking up. "I said this to Sam earlier when you were in here helping with Dean," she took a breath, then squared her shoulders and raised her eyes to meet Virgil's squarely before looking over at Dean with the same serious gaze, "and now I need to say it to you two."

Dean swallowed, feeling momentarily off-balance.

"I'm sorry."

Dean blinked. That was not what he'd been expecting. He'd expected fire, irritation, rebellion. Not remorse.

"Sorry for what?" Virgil asked, sounding as confused as Dean felt.

"I'm sorry for bringing you both – all of you – into this," Brenna elaborated. "None of you would be here if it wasn't for me. Virge, you wouldn't be in danger of losing your job—"

Dean shot a look at him. "You might lose your job?"

Virgil waved a dismissive hand at him. "It's nothing. Just some Union red tape I gotta untangle, that's all."

"And Dean," Brenna shifted, moving close to the head of the bed. "I can't even begin to apologize to you. For…so much. More than," she nodded at his torso, the bandages hidden beneath the covers, "getting you hurt again."

"You didn't get me hurt," Dean interjected. "Big ol' stick man did that."

"I got you here," she argued. "And before you protest that, too, I talked to Sam. I know you were out of the game and you came here because of me."

"Virge's the one who called us," Dean pointed out, rubbing his scarred hand on the bed absentmindedly.

Brenna leveled her eyes on him, causing him to unexpectedly catch his breath. The odd gold-green color in her eyes was larger than normal to begin with; when her pupil began to widen as it did when her vision kicked in, it was disconcerting to say the least. He swallowed, forcing himself not to look away. He knew she could see into him with barely an effort if she wanted it and he needed to be able to face that squarely.

"I know you care about what happens to Virge," she said quietly, "but you came because he said I was in trouble."

Dean didn't reply.

"And I'm sorry…I should have known." She shook her head. "I should have known the Smith's were crazy…demon crazy."

Virgil scoffed. "How, exactly?"

"I was here, in Argo, because of the druids, because of the roots this town had into part of my past," she said, her voice trembling slightly. "I was here to use the mineral in the mine and…mask my sight. I…should have seen something. I should have known."

"You can't greet everyone you meet with holy water, y'know," Dean offered quietly. "Sometimes…we don't know."

She glanced at him, frowning. "You don't blame me?"

"For what?"

She waved a hand down his body.

Dean felt a tired, rueful grin tug up the corner of his mouth. "Sweetheart, I've been making my own decisions for a lotta years now. There's nothing that happened on this hunt I blame on you."

Pressing her lips together, Brenna nodded quickly, as if to shake off residual emotion, then looked up at Virgil. "Can you give us a minute?"

Dean saw her reach into the pocket of her denim jacket and pull out what looked like a folded photograph. Virgil saw it, too, and Dean felt tension surge into the room. Virgil looked over a Dean, his blue eyes bright with what surprisingly appeared to be tears.

"Yeah, okay," he said, his voice tight. "I'll check on Sam."

"Thanks, man," Dean said as Virgil turned to leave. "I mean it. For everything."

Virgil lifted a shoulder. "Just doing my job."

"Nah," Dean shook his head. "You're being a friend. And, uh…we don't have very many of those."

Virgil offered him a sad smile, then stepped from the room, pulling the door shut behind him. Dean held his breath, watching Brenna run her fingers along the edge of the folded photo. After a moment where the only sound was the steady clicking of the IV pump next to Dean's bed, Brenna leveled her eyes on him once more, holding the photo out.

Dean took it carefully, trying to ignore the way his hand trembled. Unfolding it, he realized it was the picture he'd handed Brenna back at her house. A little girl, dark blonde hair, large green eyes, freckles, and a smile so familiar he felt his breath go still in his lungs.

"She's mine, isn't she?" He could barely force sound around the words.

"Yes."

Dean ran his thumb along the little girl's cheek. "She looks like my mom."

"That's how you knew, isn't it?" Brenna asked softly. "When I connected with you back at the mine to find Sam, you were distracted by what you thought was a memory of your mom."

Dean nodded. "I didn't…y'know, know I knew, though. Not…," he frowned, pressing his lips tight as he tried to fight the emotion that was threatening to choke him, "not like I could tell you I knew."

"I should have told you earlier, I just," she shrugged helplessly, moving around to the foot of the bed and slowly making her way toward the curtained window. "You were dead. And then you weren't. And…I didn't know how to say it."

"Tell me now," Dean implored, keeping his voice as neutral as he could.

Her back to him, arms wrapped around herself as if they were the only thing keeping her from flying apart, Brenna stared at the window, though Dean knew she couldn't see outside. She was seeing something much further away than the view of the Rocky Mountains from the Idaho Springs Medical Clinic.

"Leaving you that night was one of the hardest things I ever had to do," she said. "Sam was right to ask; you guys were looking for a way to save you, but it seemed hopeless. And you were so…," she looked down, as if hoping the word she needed would be written on the floor at her feet, "broken. I mean, you've always kinda been held together by duct tape and will, but that time there was this wound inside of you. I could see it so clearly and I knew that none of my herbs or my balm or my presence was going to be enough to heal it up."

Dean watched her quietly, Aislinn's picture in his hand. He didn't say anything, couldn't say anything. She was right; he'd not been whole in some time, but with Hell hanging over his head like a gallows, he'd been more fractured than ever.

"I didn't realize I was pregnant for a few weeks. Virge and I were trying to find a place to live in Boston, find jobs, and basically…navigate each other. Virge was always really good at watching out for me, but we never really worked out the relationship part of our…relationship. I mean, if you think about it," she looked down and Dean could see a sad smile tug at the corner of her mouth, "he kinda got stuck with me."

She rubbed her arms as if she was cold, then moved closer to the window, parting the curtains. Dean was surprised to see the beam of sunlight slip through. He really had lost track of time.

"I knew the baby was yours because I hadn't been with anyone else since that afternoon in the back of the train museum," she glanced at him over her shoulder, "remember that?"

"Not something I'm likely to forget," he replied, feeling his gut heat up at the memory of that couch, of her body against him and beneath him. If he allowed himself, he could recall every moment of that afternoon, right down to her taste, her smell, the way their bodies had glided together in the primal, perfect rhythm.

"I didn't tell Virge at first, either," she confessed, turning back to the window. "I thought about calling you; I knew there was still time before your…deadline. But then…I couldn't. You did what you did for Sam, so he could live, and it was tearing you up to know you would be leaving him behind. How could I tell you about a baby?"

"Brenna…," Dean choked out, his mind spinning with the implications of what it might have meant had he known….

If he'd known about the baby when he'd come back from Hell. If he'd known when he was trying to figure out his way in the world while demons tried to snake his brother out from under him. If he'd known when facing down angels. If he'd known when he went to Stull to either save Sam or die right along with him.

"Of course, as soon as I told him, he knew the baby was yours. But he never walked away from me," she half turned, not looking at him, but not looking away. "He stayed by my side the whole time, and he helped deliver her. We never made it to the hospital; she was born in the back of an ambulance, three weeks early."

"Wow," Dean breathed, watching her, trying to imagine.

"She was in a hurry," Brenna smiled. "And I guess, so was I. The moment I knew she was real, I couldn't wait to meet her. I could…feel her inside of me. Not just, y'know, moving around, but sense her awareness. Like I do when I see into someone, only on a level I never imagined before. By the time she was born, I had managed to control the sight. At first I was able to limit it to contact only, and then I managed to find…triggers to keep it contained until I wanted to use it. But I could see the world through her eyes at any time." She glanced up at Dean. "That's why I named her Aislinn. In Gaelic, it means vision."

Dean bobbed his head in a nod of understanding, running his thumb along the photo once more. "When was she born?"

"May," Brenna smiled. "May 21st."

Dean nodded again, looking down at the dried blood on his hand. When he was taken to Hell, his daughter had been born. He slowly wiped his hand on the bed sheets, his brain pin balling around the fact that the whole time he'd been fighting angels and a destiny he wanted no part of, the whole time he'd been struggling with this newfound power…a piece of him had been walking around, outside of him, in the world.

"The first few months after she was born were…well, not to make light of the word, but…hell," Brenna recalled. "Neither of us slept; we had to get used to each other, and I hadn't really figured out how to protect her from me. It was…a dark time for me. My world was dark, actually. But then…that September, things just…changed. I don't know what it was, but the world brightened up and she and I started to figure things out."

"Tell me about her."

Past the painful portion of her story, Brenna smiled warmly as she thought of her daughter, moving from the window to sit at the foot of Dean's bed, the mattress sinking slightly with her weight.

"She's smart. And happy. And stubborn. She loves music – I mean loves it. All kinds. Gaelic songs, lullabies, classic rock," she glanced up at Dean's chuckle. "I'm totally serious."

"I believe you," Dean replied. "Just thinking she came by that honest."

Brenna quirked her lips at him, but Dean was thinking about the time he and Sam had spent at her house back in Massachusetts – before the IRA had burned it to the ground. She had Led Zeppelin playing on a constant loop, saying that she heard too much in the quiet. Dean liked music, sure. But it was only since Stull that he had suffocated in the silence, finally understanding what she meant.

"When she was about eight months old, I could not get her to nap – no matter what I did. The only thing that worked was if I put her in her baby swing and played Metallica's Nothing Else Matters. Over and over. And then one more time."

"With the orchestra or without?"

"With, of course."

"That's my girl," Dean grinned and caught the slight hitch in Brenna's exhale at his words.

"She draws constantly, and will use anything…crayon, paint, pencil, dirt."

"Dirt?" Dean chuckled.

"Oh, don't get me started. I've had Aislinn Muire Kavanagh written in clay on the side of my car more times than I can count."

"Muire?"

"My mother's name," Brenna shrugged. "I didn't really know her – I was four when my parents were killed – but in my mind she was perfect. I mean," she smiled shyly, "I know she wasn't perfect. Nobody is. But to me, she was. And I wanted her granddaughter to have some of that spirit."

"I'm sure she does." Dean smiled at her, waiting until she met his eyes. "You said that she doesn't talk?"

Brenna's face clouded. "She does, I mean she can. She just won't. There's nothing physically wrong with her. She can form words and make sounds and once in a while she'll call my name or say 'yes' or 'no' or some other one-word response. But she won't talk to anyone else. And she doesn't…y'know, converse with me. I've seen other four-year-olds talk your ear off, but not my girl. And," her brows pulled close, "she has night terrors. Not actually…dreams, but she will wake up terrified and screaming and its only if I hold her that she calms down."

"I'm sorry, Brenna."

"That's one of the reasons I wanted the bastinite," she confessed. "It think her terrors come from me – pulled from what she sees inside of me that she doesn't understand. I thought if I could just block it…."

"You can't block the world from her, though," Dean said, his voice low, feeling the weight of his words. "I mean…when I met you, you could just look at me and your eyes would do that…bird thing and every wall, every guard I put up just…disintegrated. You didn't have to touch me."

"It was stronger when I did, though," Brenna said softly, remembering. "I almost killed you once."

"There were extenuating circumstances then," Dean muttered, remembering the wraith and its effect on him. "You lost it when you lost Declan, I remember that. So it's more or less tied to your emotions. But you got it back, and you learned to control it. Gotta think the same is going to be true for her. If she has sight, like you, no amount of magic rocks will keep her from seeing into people."

"I know," Brenna sadly. "I just…," she looked at him, tears swimming in her eyes. "I had to try. I know I caused…all of this. I know I screwed up…but I'm her mama. I had to try."

Dean swallowed hard as a tear rolled down Brenna's cheek. He ached to reach out and touch her, to offer some form of comfort, but she was coiled tight, unreachable. He knew what that felt like: to be so hollow that a whisper could shatter the thin shell portrayed to the world.

"What happened to you, Brenna?" He whispered.

She frowned, wiping her face with the back of one hand.

"You had this…fire in you," Dean remembered. "I saw it even back when we first met you. Like you were going to burn up the world."

"It's still there," Brenna told him. "But now it's contained. Having a baby changed me in ways I couldn't begin to predict. She's my fire now."

"I want to meet her." The words were out before he realized he was going to say them.

Sniffing, Brenna looked at him, her eyes wide, face pale.

"You don't have to tell her who I am," Dean hastily amended. "I just…I can't imagine…not seeing her."

"But…," Brenna stood up, wrapping her arms around herself again, and started to pace. "Who are you going to be to her?"

He shrugged. "I can be a friend of…what does she call Virgil?"

"He's just…Virge," Brenna said. "He's been a part of her life – a part of our lives – and she loves him, but to her, he's mama's friend."

"So, I can be her mama's friend," he said. "Please, Brenna…I need to see her."

Brenna pulled her bottom lip into her mouth and Dean kept his eyes on her face, holding himself completely still, resigned to whatever her next words would be.

"Okay," she nodded. "But, tomorrow. You look exhausted and Virgil's aunt is bringing her home this morning. It's the longest I've ever been away from her and I need some time."

Dean was nodding as soon as she said the word tomorrow. "Okay," he agreed.

A knock at the door pulled their attention and Dean half-expected it to be Sam. Instead, it was a nurse with a food tray saying she wanted to check his vitals and then he could have some food since he'd been fever free for eight hours.

"I'll be back tomorrow," Brenna promised, smiling at him.

Impulsively, he reached out with his left hand and clasped her wrist as she turned away. At first the connection was subtle, soft, like a caress against his mind, but as she turned to face him, her eyes flashed large and predatory, the bird-like effect in full force. For one brief moment, Dean bore the impact of her sight, actually wanting her to see him, to see something inside of him besides death and blood and darkness and pain.

Dean needed her to see light so that he could believe it was there.

This time, he couldn't see what she saw. He closed his mind to anything but her face, her eyes, and the way her lips parted as she breathed him in. When the moment passed, he exhaled and released her, waiting until she smiled gently at him before he could relax.

He watched her leave the room, then turning his attention to the nurse. He hadn't realized how hungry he was until the nurse left him with the sandwich, applesauce, and water. He inhaled the food, then got out of bed once more, tethered only to the IV pole. Moving the pump around the edge of the bed, he held onto it like a staff and made his way to the window, parting the curtains and peering with squinted eyes out at the mountains across the parking lot.

"Hey, you're up!"

The pleasant surprise in Sam's voice covered the instinctive flinch as Dean was started by the sudden noise. He turned and grinned at his brother.

"Well, if it isn't Rip Van Winkle," Dean greeted. "How're you feeling?"

Sam practically loped across the room, reaching out to clap him on the shoulder in greeting, but halting just before he made contact with Dean's bare skin. Dean cast his eyes around for a shirt, but the room was empty.

"Where're my clothes?" he asked.

Sam shrugged. "You were a mess," he said. "They're either being washed, or they were thrown away."

Dean frowned. "I hope they emptied my pockets first," he muttered.

"I'll find out for you," Sam promised. "You feeling okay? You look better."

"Yeah," Dean turned and pushed the IV pole back toward the bed, needing to sit down. "Guess I made a ruckus around here, huh?"

"When have you not?"

Folding his lips down, Dean nodded, conceding the point. "You get some rest?"

"Yeah, after Virge threatened me," Sam grumbled, once more reaching out to help Dean into bed, and stopping himself before touching Dean's bare skin. He sighed. "This sucks, dude."

"You're just getting that?" Dean asked, his voice strained as he settled on the bed, lying back, exhausted.

"I called Rufus before everything went south at Brenna's," Sam revealed. "Left him a message. Not sure if he called back, but…after that whatever it was in the mine, I need to know more."

Dean closed his eyes. "You and me both."

"I mean…," Dean could hear Sam start pacing, "what if it's something we can use against demons?"

"You planning on fighting some demons?" Dean opened one eye, watching his brother's efforts in wearing a groove in the floor.

"Crowley didn't just swing by Lawrence for a visit, Dean," Sam pointed out. "That was a scouting mission. He's going to be back. And he's going to go after people we love. He's going to go after Stella."

Dean could practically hear Sam flashing back to Jessica, and knew he needed to shut that down before Sam started spiraling beyond his grasp. "You don't know that – and would you stand still, man, you're starting to make me dizzy," he groused. "You never used to pace so much."

"Yeah well," Sam grumbled, "you never used to have glowing eyes and shoot beams of light at evil spirits, so we both have new habits."

"Sam."

Sam stopped pacing, then looked over at Dean, shifting his weight onto one hip, his arms folded across his chest. "What."

"I'm sorry, man."

"About what?"

"About…," Dean lifted his head and made sure his brother was looking at him, "not reading the warning label before I used the amulet."

"Well, it's not like Cas elaborated much," Sam conceded.

"Either way," Dean lifted a shoulder, "you still have to be part of paying the price, and I'm sorry for that. This…connection thing? This not being able to touch? It's on me."

Sam sighed. "Well…," he muttered, dropping his arms to his sides. "I'm not burning in Hell with Lucifer right now, so…it's a price I'm willing to pay."

They were silent for a moment, and Dean rolled his neck, working to keep himself alert. His whole body was ticking down to much-needed oblivion.

"You talk with Maddox?" he asked.

"Not yet," Sam replied. "Virge said that they'd called in Colorado State Police. I'm staying away from that nightmare."

"Good idea," Dean nodded. "The priest guy doing okay?"

"Yeah, he's back home," Sam told him. "No one is saying word one about witches or druids. It's like they don't want to look directly at the truth or it'll eat them alive."

"Isn't that usually the way?" Dean shrugged. "I mean, when shit's flying around the room and the only thing keeping them alive is a barrel of rock salt, everyone's a believer. But you get outside in the sun and it's Chrysler's and morning coffee and suddenly it's something they read in the latest Stephen King book."

"Some people know what happened, Dean," Sam said. "Some people still believe."

"Yeah, well," Dean sighed, dropping his head back. "Let me get a little more rest and we can get out of here."

"Dean," Sam frowned, tilting his head in question. "What about Brenna?"

Dean looked away, then rubbed at the scars around his left eye. "Haven't figured that part out yet." Sam was quiet and Dean knew his brother was waiting for him to address the elephant in the room. "You're an uncle, y'know."

"I know."

"Uncle Sam," Dean let amusement burble up through his voice. "You gonna grow a long goatee and get a funny hat?"

"Shut up," Sam half-grinned.

"Stars and Stripes might look good on you."

"You're such a jerk," Sam smiled.

"Yeah, well, you're a bitch."

"Better not let your daughter hear you talking like that," Sam warned good-naturedly.

Suddenly, Dean felt winded. Sweat gathered on his upper lip and the back of his neck as he looked at Sam with large eyes.

"Holy shit, man," he breathed. "Holy shit."

"You have a kid, Dean."

"I have a kid."

They stared at each other for a nearly half a minute and then broke out into simultaneous grins. Visibly bracing himself for whatever he'd feel when he touched his brother, Sam launched forward and wrapped his arms around Dean's shoulders in quick, tight hug. The shock was sudden and shook through Dean, turning his vision black, but it didn't last long as Sam pulled away, blinking and panting.

"What? What did you see?"

"Just…light," Sam gasped. "So much of it…it hurt my eyes."

"Light? That's it?"

Sam nodded. "A blue light. You go dark?"

"Yeah, just like always."

They were quiet a moment, staring at each other.

"You're gonna be a great dad, Dean."

Dean looked away, his throat tight. "Jesus, Sammy."

"You are."

"I'm no dad."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

Dean looked back at him, letting the fear and loathing he felt for himself swim to the surface of his eyes. "Look at me, man! My side is in ribbons because of some druid witch, I can barely see out of one eye, my scars have scars, and I have random angel powers I don't know how to control."

"What's that got to do with anything?"

"I'm a mess, Sam," Dean said softly. "I'm not fit to be that little girl's dad. I'm barely fit to be your brother."

"Dean," Sam's voice grew hard. "You were more a dad to me than our actual father was."

"Don't, Sam—"

Sam leaned forward his hands on the bed, his face close to Dean's. "No, you listen to me. And I mean fucking listen this time."

Dean blinked drawing his head back and staring at his brother, unnerved by the strange déjà vu of Sam leaning over him. It was not unlike John's position the last time he'd seen his father alive.

"Dad taught me a lot," Sam started. "He protected me as best he could, for as long as he could. But you raised me." His hazel eyes were fierce as he stared at Dean. "You taught me to tie my shoes and ride a bike. You talked me out of my bad dreams. You taught me how to shoot and throw a knife and make Mac 'n Cheese. You taught me about girls and how to drive. You were there for me every day, Dean. You are going to make a great Dad."

Dean couldn't speak. He waited until Sam finally drew away before replying, "We're hunters, Sammy. Raised by a Marine. She's just a little girl."

"Look at Jo," Sam said. "At Mom. They were hunters."

"Jo and Mom are dead," Dean pointed out.

Sam sighed, hanging his head and speaking to the bed. "Everyone dies," he said finally. He looked over at Dean. "Even though you've managed to find your way back and have bargained for my life…we're both gonna die someday. What matters is…what did we do while we lived?"

Dean looked down. "When'd you get to be so smart?"

"Learned it from my big brother."

Dean huffed and shook his head. "I don't know if Brenna wants me to be Aislinn's dad."

"She kinda doesn't get a choice, there."

Dean looked away. "Not what I meant."

Sam rested his hand on Dean's covered leg. "Me neither."

Dean looked back at him.

"This is ultimately about what you want to do. What you're prepared to do."

Dean nodded. After a moment, he spoke up. "Problem is…I have no idea what that is."

Sam moved around to the other side of the bed, sinking down on the chair.

"I have blood on my hands, Sam," Dean continued quietly.

"We've all done things—"

"No," Dean interrupted him, holding out his scarred right hand. "I have blood on my hands. I see it, right now. All the time."

Sam frowned. "There's nothing there, Dean."

"Exactly."

"What are you—"

"You think a little girl needs to be around a guy who sees the blood of the people he ripped apart while he was in Hell all over his hands?"

Sam pressed his lips flat, looking down at his hands. "You don't have to decide right now," he said. He narrowed his eyes as he looked up at Dean, as if seeing how completely spent Dean really was. "Hey, you okay?"

He wasn't, but saying that out loud wouldn't make it any better. He was exhausted, he hurt, and every time his heart beat he felt a dull stab through his body like the organ was slowly tearing him apart, beat by beat.

"I'm fine," he replied. "Just…y'know. Tired."

"It's been a long few days," Sam nodded. "Maybe get some sleep. We can talk later."

"Yeah, okay," Dean sighed, knowing the outcome wasn't going to change, but too tired to argue the point. He closed his eyes. "What about you?"

"They said I could get a cot later. I'll just read something for a while," Sam said, though his voice seemed to be fading.

"'K…."

"Dean?"

Sam's voice seemed to echo as Dean slipped into a comfortable gray, his body relaxing into the bed. For several long moments, there was nothing. Only peace, and rest – finally, at last, rest. But then he saw what looked like a giant…moth? The wings beat against the air around him and the eyes, God, the eyes were so black, so large and black they seemed like holes. He tried to back away, but the black of the eyes pulled him close and he realized he could see inside, see down into the moth's eyes, the air around him stirring by the beating wings.

There was light inside the black of the eyes. A blue light. And it seemed to be pulsating, beating like the rhythm of a voice he couldn't understand. Instinctively, he tried to get closer, to reach for the light and his world began to spin, light and darkness slipping around him until suddenly, he was tangled in chains, edges of hooks digging into his flesh and snagging him so that he couldn't get away. In the distance, he could see Sam – wrapped in the blue light, arms spread, eyes closed. Dean called out, knowing instinctively that the blue light could help him if he could only hear it, but the chains held him fast.

And Sam wasn't moving.

He struggled, pulling his arms away, but the chains wrapped tight, like a snake squeezing its prey. He couldn't break free and was helpless to watch the darkness grow around him. He arched his back, his last defense against the prison of chains, and cried out.

"Dean, hey!"

He sat up, sweaty, choking for breath.

"Easy, man, take it easy!"

He clawed at his throat, trying desperately to get air, still feeling the chains wrapped around him, knowing that if he could only release the pressure on his throat he could breathe again.

"Hey, I'm here, Dean, it's okay, just breathe, okay?"

He wanted to – didn't Sam see that he was trying? He blinked bleary eyes at his brother, reaching out for him in a panic-induced attempted to drag Sam close to him where they would be, presumably, safe. But his hands felt wooden, his fingers like marionettes on strings. And he couldn't fucking touch his brother. Not even to save his own life.

"With me, okay?" Sam was saying, his eyes on Dean's. "Just breathe with me."

Dean focused on his brother's face, his brother's voice, and found his way back out of the maze of chains that wrapped him up, strangling him as they spun around him.

"It's spinning," he panted.

Sam's hands hovered over his sweaty shoulders, not touching him, but visibly wanting to. "What's spinning?"

Dean looked at his brother, his eyes cloudy from the dream, not yet sure where the line between real and not real was drawn. "Everything. The world."

"It's…it's okay, Dean. It's supposed to spin."

Dean shook his head, working to swallow as the air started to come in more easily, the chains loosening. "What happens when the spinning stops?"

Sam was frowning, his face as close to Dean as he seemed to dare without touching him. "Are you awake, man?"

Dean lay back, catching his breath and dragging a hand down his face. "Think so."

"You back with me?" Sam asked.

"Yeah."

"What was spinning?"

Dean dropped his hand, staring at the ceiling. "The only thing that keeps us from floating away is the fact that the world is spinning."

Sam sat down heavily in the chair next to Dean's bed. "That is…incredibly profound for a nightmare."

They were both quiet for a moment, the sound of Dean's ragged breathing the only thing that combatted the silence.

"It's too fuckin' quiet," Dean said, almost angry.

"I know."

"I can hear too much when it's quiet," Dean muttered.

"I know," Sam repeated.

Resting his hand on his tender side, Dean thought about the chains in his dream.

"We're always moving, Sam," Dean rolled his head on the pillow, pining his brother with his eyes. "It's what's kept us alive. What happens when we stopped moving?"

Sam frowned. "We stopped for a while," he said. "The world didn't end."

"Did we?"

"We had a house. And jobs. And friends," Sam pointed out. "We even got a coffee maker."

"Can we stay there without falling off the world?" Dean asked, knowing his words sounded almost garbled, but too rattled from the dream to say anything else.

"What did you dream about, man?"

Dean groaned and closed his eyes. "Some big…moth man with wings and a blue light in its eyes."

Sam tilted his head. "Cas?"

Dean looked at his brother, arching an eyebrow. "You think Cas is a moth man?"

"No," Sam replied cautiously. "But he has wings and blue eyes."

"Had."

"Cas isn't dead, Dean. He's just…not here."

"Or so you hope."

Sam pressed his lips together and looked down. "You have got to get some actual sleep."

"Slept eighteen hours just a little while ago."

"Being unconscious with a 104 degree fever isn't sleep," Sam countered. "Maybe we should…I don't know, go talk to someone like Virge suggested."

"Who, Sam?" Dean pushed up in the bed a little. "Who's gonna understand Hell?"

"Well…Virge said that you could just talk about it like you'd gone to Iraq or some place."

Dean shook his head, looking down at his scarred hand, running his fingers over the raised flesh, watching the blood ooze out as he pressed gently.

"It's not Iraq, though," Dean said quietly. "The nightmares are…well, just dreams. You have bad dreams. You know."

Sam nodded, his face clouding with memories.

"The other stuff…it's like…," Dean looked away, remembering. "It's like I'm not here anymore. I'm back there, in that room, the rack in front of me. Or I'm on the rack. And I see all the…the blood and…and horror and I hear all those sounds…the screams and the shrieks and the groans and the misery. I don't see anything real around me. I see—"

"I know what you see," Sam interrupted quietly. "I've seen it when I touch you."

Dean looked at his brother with tragic eyes, grateful and apologetic at once.

"You don't have to live with that alone, man."

"It was my choice, Sam," Dean replied. "No one else's. I gave up my soul. No one took it from me. Why should anyone else have to carry this?"

"Because, Dean," Sam said, sitting forward. "You're one of the good guys."

Dean still shook his head. "I can't be part of their lives like this," he said. He looked over at Sam. "She can see this, Sam. A touch and she's right there with me. And her daughter – our daughter – has that same power. I can't ask them to carry this…this Hell."

"So maybe you get help and come back to them."

Dean shook his head, his throat too tight to speak.

"It might sound lame, but," Sam said, leaning back, "it kinda seems like for us? Before something great happens…everything falls apart."

Dean huffed a laugh. "Ain't that the truth."

"So…maybe you have to get through this fall in order to have your family with you."

Dean shot a look over at his brother. "You're my family, Sam."

Sam smiled softly. "I'll always be your family, man. But I don't have to be your only family."

Dean frowned.

"Put it this way," Sam continued. "When I get back to Lawrence, I'm not wasting any time finding a much prettier face than your mug to look at."

"What are you talking about?" Dean grumbled. "I'm pretty."

"Yeah, well," Sam grinned. "You're not my type."

"You really like her, huh, Sammy?"

Sam's smile softened. "I haven't felt like this for anyone since Jess," he admitted. "I'd go so far as to use the 'L' word with her."

Dean tilted his head. "Licorice?"

Sam smirked, pointing a finger at his brother. "You got me."

Dean smiled. "I'm glad, man."

"Maybe one day, you can share some licorice with Brenna," Sam ventured.

Dean shrugged. "Not sure I'm the licorice kind of guy."

Sam shook his head. "Dean, man…you've got so much licorice, you're friggin' Willie Wonka."

Dean chuckled. "Okay, now I have a serious jones for some Twizzlers."

Sam grinned and sat back in his chair, putting his feet up on Dean's bed.

www

"Rise and shine, boys!"

Virgil's voice boomed through the small clinic room where Sam rested on a cot across the room from Dean's hospital bed. He pushed upright, his neck and lower back cracking from the uncomfortable cot and the still-healing bruises inflicted upon it. The skin that had been burned by the taser pulled slightly as he stretched, and he winced, gingerly touching the area below the burns as he rubbed at his sleep-tangled hair and blinked blearily at Virgil.

"Wassat?" he muttered.

"Your clothes. And phones. And stuff."

"Dude," Sam stood up. "You are made of awesome."

"Thank you," Virgil smiled smugly. "I like to think so."

He headed over to the duffel bags, glancing at Dean as he crossed the room. "You awake?"

"Not sure I was asleep," Dean answered honestly, his bare torso clear of bruising, the white bandage around the cuts the only thing exposing his wounds. He'd swung his legs over the side of the bed, and was gripping the mattress with his left hand as if for balance.

Sam pulled out clean clothes, nodding sleepily to that comment, figuring it was probably true. Once he'd dropped off after they brought the cot into the room, he hadn't heard Dean make a sound loud enough to jar him from sleep. The way Dean's nightmares had been escalating lately, Sam was pretty sure if his brother had slept, it hadn't been for long.

"Phones," Virgil said, tossing their phones toward them. "I charged them for you."

"Thanks, man," Sam grinned, feeling like a kid at Christmas.

There were two messages from Stella checking on him, asking him to call, sounding worried. Sam felt his heart hammer in reaction to her voice, to the careful way she worded her message – riding the line between full-on freak-out and just casual musing as to his well-being. He immediately sent her a text to say he was still alive and was coming home…soon. He wanted to say so much more, but not while Dean and Virgil were in the room, and not when he was so far away from her.

No matter what happened with the situation in Argo, Sam knew he was heading back to Lawrence. He may have accepted the fact that he was a hunter, but also knew he had some place to call home. He wanted to go back there, and he wanted to take his brother with him.

He glanced over at Dean as he listened to his third message. It was from Rufus, returning his call and saying that he'd found a spell to contact an angel – his best guess in finding out more about the amulet. Sam frowned, wondering how summoning an angel was different from praying to one.

"Dude," Dean said.

Sam saw his brother was listening to his own voicemail. "What?"

"Got a call from Mason. Jackson got suspended because Sorensen came back from his little East Coast trek and started making accusations. Here," Dean pulled the phone from his ear and turned on the speaker.

"Something happened to the guy back East," Mason's baritone, no-nonsense voice echoed flatly from Dean's speaker. "I mean, he's not always been the easiest to get along with, but he came back…angry. Like dangerous angry. He started blaming you guys for everything from the crazy weather patterns to the deaths out at Stull. Jackson, well, he's never been one to keep his temper in check. Decked the dude and got himself suspended. I sure hope you're doing okay out there in Colorado, because…well, we could use you back around here. Call me when you can."

"What do you think?" Sam asked, feeling cold.

People they cared about were getting knocked around by the ripples created just by being pulled into the wave of the Winchesters. This druid hunt might be done, but it was no longer possible to simply move on. Another city, another motel room, another hunt. Now, they had roots. They had people. And they had a responsibility to take care of them.

"I'm thinking demon."

"Is one or talked to one?"

"Either way," Dean said, glancing at Virgil, then back at Sam, "it's not good."

"Well, Rufus," Sam lifted his phone, "thinks we need to summon an angel and ask them straight up about the amulet."

"Summon an angel?" Dean asked.

"That's what I was thinking," Sam agreed.

Dean paused. "Any angel?"

Sam shrugged, his brows pulling close as he watched his brother's eyes dart in thought. He knew how badly Dean wanted to talk to Castiel. He wondered if it was possible to summon an angel when its vessel had been annihilated.

The brothers stared at each other for a moment.

"So we're back to angels and demons," Dean said tiredly.

Sam swallowed and nodded.

"What are you going to do about it?" Virgil asked, looking tense and worried.

Dean reached for the IV, starting to pull it out of the back of his hand. Sam called out, but Virgil was already on the move.

"What are you - crazy? I'm standing right here!"

"I need to get this leash off, man," Dean grumbled.

"Well hang on a damn minute and let me help you," Virgil grumbled, muttering something that sounded to Sam like stubborn bastard under his breath. He began working to remove the IV without causing Dean more damage. "This leash saved your damn life, you know."

"Yeah, well, my life is needed for other things now," Dean shot back. "Saving it isn't that important."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Sam held up a hand. "Let's think about this a second."

"What's there to think about?" Dean shot back. "We tried the normal life. We tried to hunt just this once. It's not going to work."

"I know, but—"

"But nothing," Dean snapped. "We did it your way. Now we go back to what we know."

Sam watched his brother hold the gauze over the spot on his hand where the IV had gone in as Virgil readied a wrap to stop the bleeding. He thought of the moment in the mine just before they'd entered the alcove and faced down the druids; he'd known in that moment they were hunters. It didn't matter what they might want in the face of that knowledge.

Hunting wasn't what they did, it was who they were. But that didn't mean they had to throw themselves in front of every moving train of evil and hope they came out alive.

"There's a smarter way to do this. There has to be."

Dean stood up, swaying for a moment before catching his balance on the bed. Without regard to the other two men in the room, he grabbed his clothes from the duffel Virgil had dropped on the floor, stripped out of the hospital pants provided to him, and tugged on boxers, jeans, and a T-shirt, before searching for a long-sleeved shirt to pull on.

"We got demons looking for us, Sam," Dean grumbled. "And other people are getting hurt because of it."

"Nothing's happened that we can't deal with, Dean," Sam countered. "Let's just…talk to Rufus. Maybe call some other hunters—"

"Who, man?" Dean asked, once more forcing Sam to back up his hope, provide evidence of the possibilities he tossed into the ring. "Name me one hunter and I'll call them right now."

Dean stood up, his jaw set, but Sam saw the color drain from his face almost as quickly as the fire lit his eyes.

Virgil stepped forward again, grabbing Dean's elbow. "Sit the hell down before you keel over," he ordered, all-but pushing Dean into a chair next to his bed.

Sam stepped forward, feeling his skin tighten with anxiety and anger. "I'm not saying we should avoid this, Dean." He bit off his words. "I got more reasons to go back to Lawrence than you; I'm seeing this through." He dared Dean to call him on that statement, showing his brother with the set of his jaw how serious he was about returning home. "I'm just saying, it doesn't always have to be a sacrifice, and we don't always have to be the ones left bloody."

"I don't know any other way," Dean confessed quietly, a low, dangerous hum riding beneath the wave of his words.

"Well, before you head back to Lawrence to get yourself beat to hell by demons," Virgil broke in, "how about you get some food. Some strength." Sam could feel the heat of Virgil's glare from where he stood; he was glad it was directed at Dean and not him. "Sam's right; nothing's been done that can't be fixed. And you're no good to anyone if you end up back there," he finished his tirade by pointing to the rumpled hospital bed.

Dean opened his mouth to retort, but a knock at the door stopped him. All three men turn as the door opened slowly and Brenna peaked around the corner.

"Everyone decent?" She asked.

Sam felt his mouth go dry as he nodded. Brenna pushed the door opened a little wider and stepped in, her other hand grasping her daughter's firmly as Aislinn followed her mother inside. Sam looked over at Dean; he could see his brother's freckles from across the room, Dean was so pale. The thin, pink scars around his left eye seemed to stand out and his large eyes were lit – not from any angelic power, but from emotion.

"I, uh…we," he glanced at Virgil, "can go."

Dean shot him a look. "No, it's okay."

"I'll go," Virgil said quietly. He stepped over to Aislinn and crouched down to her level. "Hi, Munchkin."

Aislinn grinned at him and Sam's breath caught. It was his brother's smile, right down to the twinkle in her eyes.

"I've missed you," Virgil continued. "Can I get a hug?"

Aislinn leaned forward, not releasing Brenna's hand, and offered Virgil a shoulder as if she were allowing him to hug her. Virgil obliged and then kissed the top of her head before standing and sending a soft smile toward Brenna.

"I'll be at the station, if you need me," he told her.

"'K," she replied softly, watching him walk out, shutting the door behind him.

Leading Aislinn over to where Dean sat, Brenna rested her free hand on her daughter's head. "Baby, I'd like you to meet a very good friend of mine. His name is Dean."

Sam stepped backwards until he was against a wall, leaning on it heavily and watching as his brother's eyes never left the little girl's face, seeming to need to drink her in with a glance. Dean smiled as Brenna introduced him. To Sam's surprise, Aislinn released Brenna's hand – which until that moment had seemed like her lifeline – and stepped closer to Dean.

"Hi," Dean said, his voice soft and a bit husky with checked emotion. "How's it going?"

Aislinn tilted her head slightly, studying him. Sam saw her eyes track the scars on his brother's face, then look down his body to his scarred, bandaged hand. Dean stuck out his left hand, offering a shake and without hesitation, Aislinn grasped his fingers. Sam saw Brenna flinch, as he did, when Dean and Aislinn both gasped at the contact.

Brenna moved forward, as if to pull the little girl away, but stopped herself, both she and Sam watching as color brushed Dean's pale cheeks, his eyes widening and filling with tears, and a soft smile relaxed Aislinn's mouth.

Dean gently pulled his hand away and cleared his throat, but when he blinked, the tears that had been balanced on his lashes slipped loose and tracked down his face, finding a home at the corners of his mouth. Aislinn frowned and moved closer, touching the bandage on the back of his hand where the IV had been.

"Yeah, that's not pretty, is it?" Dean said in a relaxed, almost conversational tone. Aislinn moved her fingers to his side, touching the wraps covered by his T-shirt. "I got a little hurt, but I'm okay. Your friend Virge helped fix me up."

At that Aislinn grinned, tilting her head again as her eyes traced his face; she was openly curious about his scars, but didn't reach up to touch them. Sam shifted, trying to see the little girl's expression better, and her eyes cut over to him at the movement.

"That's Sam," Dean told her. "He's my little brother."

Aislinn looked at Sam from his feet to his head and Sam heard Dean chuckle as if he'd heard something no one else had.

"Yeah, he's not so little anymore," he told her. "But he still needs looking after sometimes."

Sam stepped forward, then crouched down as Virgil had. "Hi," he greeted smiling.

Aislinn offered him a small smile, then looked back at Dean, this time reaching up and touching the scar beneath his eye. Sam was close enough to his brother that he could feel Dean go still, barely breathing as the little fingers caressed his cheek. She dropped her hand and narrowed her eyes at Dean a bit before smiling once more.

"Coimiceoir," Aislinn said, surprising them all.

Sam shot a look over at Brenna, who was covering her mouth with her fingertips. "What did she say?"

"It's Gaelic," Brenna said, her voice trembling. "It means guardian."

Dean gave Aislinn a half-grin. "Yeah, you're right. He needs a guardian."

Aislinn matched Dean's grin.

"Your mama told us how smart you are," Dean continued, his eyes never leaving the little girl's face. "And how brave."

Aislinn looked back over at Brenna, who stepped forward, reaching for her daughter's hand. Aislinn reached up as if her hand was draw by a magnet and leaned slightly against her mother's leg. Dean straightened, a hand pressed almost unconsciously against his wounded side.

"I'm really happy I got to meet you, Aislinn," he says, the name rolling off his tongue as though he said it every day.

He glanced up at Brenna and Sam could see his throat working overtime. Brenna nodded and gently tugged on Aislinn's hand.

"C'mon, kiddo," Brenna said. "We got some stuff to clean up back at the house. Let's let Dean get some rest, okay?"

Aislinn nodded and started to follow, then paused and turned back to Dean.

"See ya," she said brightly.

Dean smiled back at her, lifting his hand in a wave, and Sam felt certain he'd never seen his brother's eyes brighter than they were in that moment. As the girls left, closing the door behind them, Dean shifted his eyes up to meet Sam's and the light bled out, leaving a trail of uncertainty and despair in its wake.

"What did you see when she touched you?" Sam asked.

"Nothing…just her," Dean replied. "But she saw something. I felt it. Like…a hand inside my head."

"She didn't look scared by what she saw," Sam pointed out. In fact, she'd looked happy, he remembered.

"Jesus…, what the hell am I gonna do now, Sammy?" Dean asked, his voice cracking across the words. He looked back at the closed door. "What am I gonna do now?"

www

Waiting until they were officially released from the hospital had never been one of the Winchester habits, so Sam was certain it came as no surprised to Virgil called him for a ride back to Argo later that same afternoon. Dean had allowed the nurse to change his bandage, giving both of them a wince-worthy glimpse of the bruised skin around the multiple angry stitches that covered him from his belly to his spine.

Sam had seen enough wounds of that nature to know that the puffy, red skin around the stitches wasn't a good sign, but he'd also seen the determined, closed-off-to-reason expression on his brother's face enough times to know that trying to get Dean to stay longer was not an option. When Virgil opened his mouth to make such an attempt, Sam cut him off with a shake of his head. Dean needed to get out of there; they could figure out how to take care of his wound later.

They'd certainly done it enough times before.

Once the AMA papers had been signed, the brothers climbed into Virgil's truck for the ride back to Argo where the Impala sat waiting for them.

"So, that's it?" Virgil said as they wove around the curving mountain roads on their short decent. "Bad guy's handled, you're not bleeding anymore, you just…head on out? Like always?"

Sam, sitting in passenger side of the front seat, looked in the side mirror where he could see his brother's reflection from the seat behind him.

"No," Dean sighed.

"So, you're not leaving?" Virgil pressed.

"We have to leave," Dean replied, meeting Sam's eyes reassuringly in the mirror. "But…it's not like always."

Virgil nodded, a muscle bouncing in his jaw. "She's not going to just pack up and come back to Lawrence with you," he said, his tone hard. "Believe me. I tried that tactic already."

"I'm not planning on asking her to," Dean replied.

"But you're part of this now," Virgil said, his blue eyes flinty as they caught Dean in the mirror. "You're not going to just walk away from them, even if you think it's for their own good."

It wasn't a question and everyone in the truck knew it.

"Listen," Dean said, his tone matching Virgil's and offering no quarter. "I'm not going to abandon her. But you know better than anyone that my life isn't safe. It's going to have to be Brenna's choice how much she wants her daughter involved in that."

"Your daughter," Virgil corrected. "She's yours, man. And she's amazing. You don't have to live a life that isn't safe for her. You can make another choice."

Sam watched as Dean turned to look out at the passing scenery.

"You got no idea how much I wish that was true," Dean replied softly. "But…some of us don't have a choice."

Sam rested his head on the window, feeling the world press down on him as he listened to the loss in his brother's voice.

"You asked me once," Virgil continued, "if I'd quit this job. Being a fireman and a paramedic."

"Yeah, and you said nothing made sense if you weren't doing this job."

"I meant that," Virgil replied. "But…maybe that's because I've never had a good enough reason to stop."

Dean met Sam's eyes in the rear view mirror as Virgil passed the sign marking the town limit of Argo. "Some of us don't get a choice," he repeated.

Sam bit his tongue to keep from drawing the argument out. He saw where Virgil was trying to lead his brother; it was a path he'd gone down many times before only to have Dean veer off into the woods to get lost. He knew there had to be a way to keep them grounded in the small brush of consistency they'd found in Lawrence and not betray their hunter roots. If only he could convince Dean to help him find a way.

There were others – non-hunters – who knew the truth, who didn't abandon them, didn't shun them, didn't want to lock them in a cage. There were those who knew the truth who trusted them, who believed them. Who needed them. Sam had to find a way, somehow, to have both a semblance of a normal life and be a hunter.

The only problem was, every conclusion he drew ended with someone they loved hurt or worse.

"What the hell?" Virgil broke in, drawing the brother's attention.

Gathered on the front lawn of the fire station were over a dozen people from Argo, including Damien, the priest, Mr. Riker, and Sheriff Maddox.

"Did you let anyone know we were coming back?" Dean asked, his voice tense.

"Just Maddox," Virgil replied. "Replacement fire chief was asking about me and I let him know I was bringing you two back to get your car today."

"Swell," Sam grumbled. He glanced back at Dean. "You ready to make a run for it if we have to?"

He watched Dean press a hand to his still-tender side and nod, his expression grim.

"I'll cover for you," Virgil told them.

"No," the brother's replied in unison.

"You stay clear of it, Virge," Dean told him. "You've been through enough because of us."

Pulling up to the curb behind the Impala, Virgil shut off the engine and glanced over at the brothers. Sam looked over the bench seat at Dean, nodded once, and they both exited the cab of the truck, closing the doors behind them in one motion. Virgil grabbed their duffels from the bed of the truck and stood behind them, holding both bags at his sides.

The group of people were utterly silent, all staring at the brothers with serious eyes. Sam had zero read on the situation and it made him nervous, sweat gathering along the collar of his jacket and sliding down the valley of his spine. The only thing he felt they had going for them was the fact that he could see no visible weapons.

Dean took a quick breath and walked up to Maddox; Sam wished his brother didn't look like a strong gust of wind might topple him.

"Maddox," Dean greeted, nodding once.

"You boys heading out?" Maddox asked.

Sam waited on Dean's reply, unsurprised when Dean said nothing.

"You probably heard the Denver folks are here, crawling all over this case," Maddox said, hooking his thumbs in his belt and spitting a thin stream of tobacco off to the right of Dean. "Haven't told them anything about you boys. Yet."

Dean lifted his chin, visibly taking the words as a warning.

"Maddox," the priest sighed, stepping forward. "For God's sake."

Dean shifted his focus to Damien. Sam saw the priest's face was bruised and he stood slightly hunched forward, as if his ribs were sore. He knew from personal experience that the taser burns probably still ached.

"We owe you a debt," Damien began. Sam blinked in surprise and saw Dean tilt his head in question. "The truth is, this town," Damien glanced around at the people gathered behind him, then turned back to Dean, "all of us in some way…we knew about the darkness. We knew there was evil here. For a long, long time. And we," he looked down, shrugging slightly as if in an attempt to dismiss the voracity of his words, "ignored it."

Riker stepped forward, his face seeming to have aged thirty years in the three days since his daughter was killed. "We drew lines," he said, his voice rheumatic, thick with regret and remorse, "just like you said." He nodded at Sam and Sam saw Dean turn slightly to look back at him.

Stepping forward so that he flanked his brother, Sam nodded back at Riker, letting the man continue.

"We chose sides and instead of trying to find a way to fight the evil that had infested our town, we decided to fight each other," the old man sniffed, wiping his face with the back of his hand. "You boys…you knew. You knew what was killing our people and you knew how to stop it and you didn't hesitate. Even when we tried to stop you, you did what was right."

Dean shared an astonished glance with Sam, neither of them able to speak.

The priest reached into the pocket of his jacket and withdrew an envelope. "This is for you…," he said shoving it into Sam's hands. "Both of you. For the pain you went through to save us."

"What is it?" Sam asked, looking at the envelope.

"A collection," Damien replied.

Sam gaped at him, then looked at Dean seeing an equally shocked expression on his brother's face.

"It's not a lot," Damien continued. "But it's from everyone in town. We can only hope it helps and…shows our gratitude for what you did."

"Wait…you're…this is…money?" Dean stuttered a reply. "You want to…pay us?"

"Yes," Riker replied, looking back at Maddox. "Even this old bastard chipped in."

"It's hush money," Maddox grumbled, but Sam saw the smile lines around his eyes.

Sam opened the envelope, looking inside. "Dean," he said in a low voice. "There's over five hundred dollars here."

Dean stared at him, then looked back at the crowd, unable to speak. The moment was compounded when someone in the back of the small crowd began to applaud. The rhythm was picked up until even Virgil was clapping behind then, the duffels having been dropped to the ground beside him.

Sam stared around him, completely flabbergasted. Dean looked like someone had put him in a cage. But they both stood, staring a bit shell-shocked until the clapping stopped and the people of Argo came forward in small groups to shake their hands and pat their shoulders and thank them. As Damien came over, Sam tried to thrust the envelope back toward him.

"We can't take this," Sam said.

"You can," Damien said, closing his slender fingers over the envelope and Sam's hands, pushing it back toward Sam's body. "You saved my life. I owe you so much more than this. But it's a start."

Sam nodded, his chest tight with emotion. Never, in twenty-nine years of hunting, had anyone ever thanked them – at least not in a public we know what you saved us from and what you sacrificed in order to do it manner. He felt slightly lightheaded with the ramifications of this moment.

As the crowd began to disburse, Maddox walked up to Dean and Sam faced them squarely, wary of what the sheriff might say to ruin the warm rush of awe he was swimming through.

"Thought you should know I resigned," Maddox said.

Dean lifted his chin, clearly surprised. "Why?"

"Because," Maddox sighed, "I let eleven people get killed by the same man and never once realized that the bastard was part of my own family."

"No way you could have known," Dean offered, for some reason Sam couldn't fathom, trying to let the man off the hook.

"Yeah, there was. Plenty of signs and I chose to ignore them because," he shrugged, "they were all impossible. But I guess we learned that word has a whole new meaning." He glanced over at Sam, then shifted his eyes back to Dean. "My last act as Sheriff was to order a full investigation into August Smith and his family. His whole family."

"You might not like what you find out," Dean cautioned him.

"Son, at this point, I think I'd rather know than be lost in the same cloud I was for twenty years. Truth is," he spat once more, crossing his arms over his chest and looking out across the mountains framing the shallow valley where Argo rested, "I didn't make a good drunk. Or, hell, maybe I made an excellent one. Either way, I spent a lot of years hiding from the truth inside a bottle just to get the job done...and it turns out, I missed the whole point of the job. Because of that, this town – and you boys – paid the price."

Dean worked his jaw a bit, clearly chewing on the best reply to that confession. "You going to have them look into the original cave-in?"

"Yep," Maddox replied.

"You might want this," Sam told him, pulling from his pocket the timeline he'd taken off of David's body back in the mine tunnel. "Depending on how much truth you dig out…it could come in handy."

Maddox took the paper with a nod of thanks, tugged on the brim of his hat in goodbye, and turned to follow the crowd as they dispersed to their various haunts. Dean turned slowly to face Sam.

"Son of a bitch," he said slowly.

"Couldn't have said it better myself," Sam replied, his eyes shifting over Dean's shoulder as he saw Brenna approach.

"Hey," she called, making Dean turn quickly, if a little unsteadily. "Saddle up. You're coming up to my house tonight."

"We are?" Dean replied.

"You are. And if you hurry, I'll feed you dinner."

"Can you cook?" Dean asked, tipping his head inquisitively.

"It's free food; does it matter?"

Dean glanced back at Sam, lips folded down in a frown. "Point taken."

"I'll drive," Sam declared.

To his surprise, Dean didn't argue. He simply moved over to the passenger side of the Impala and waited. Sam exchanged a worried glance with Virgil, then grabbed their duffels from the paramedic's feet.

"You coming?" Sam asked.

"I'll meet you there. Something I gotta pick up first."

Sam nodded and headed to the Impala, dropping their duffels in the trunk and unlocking the doors. He didn't comment as Dean stifled a groan when he slid into the passenger seat, nor did he mutter when Dean slumped over to rest his forehead against the glass.

He did, however, chuckle quietly when Dean said, "She better have pie."

www

Dean knew his body well enough to recognize when something wasn't right. The fever he'd spiked while at the clinic may have abated with the IV antibiotics, but he was pretty sure the pills they made him take when leaving weren't going to be strong enough to combat the infection he could feel building in his side.

The wound was hot, the pain knifing through him with every other breath. It was familiar and worrisome, but not so much that he was about to voluntarily stay at the medical clinic. He had a job to do.

Sam took his time, following a different path than Virgil had taken up to Brenna's house – one without so many tight turns and winding roads. It took them longer, but Dean didn't comment; it was easier on his battered equilibrium and he knew that was why his brother had taken that route.

I must look ten shades of awful, he thought, closing his eyes for the remainder of the ride.

"We're here," Sam was saying as if from miles away.

Dean lifted his head from where it rested against the window and looked around, recognizing Brenna's small house from the night he'd found out that Sam was missing.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, fine," Dean replied, opening the door and pulling himself out of the car before Sam's too-keen eyes caught the fine sheen of sweat that had gathered along his brow.

The evening mountain air felt clean, new. Like he'd somehow heal if he could simply breathe deep enough. Closing the door behind him, he moved past Virgil's truck and headed toward Brenna's front door, Sam at his heels.

"She picked a helluva spot," Sam said in a conversational tone. "Have to admit."

"It's pretty up here," Dean agreed.

"Kinda suits you," Sam said.

Dean paused and turned just before he reached the steps, frowning in confusion at his brother. "What does? The mountains?"

"Yeah, I mean," Sam shrugged and then waved a hand around them. "Look around, man."

Dean did as he was asked, taking in the dark shadows of the looming mountains crested with the gold of the setting sun and the gray half-light of the canyon spread out at the foot of Brenna's drive. He could almost get a sense of safety there; as if he were tucked far enough away that no one or nothing could find him and hurt him.

"I'm not stayin' here, Sam," he muttered. "We've got work to do."

"I know," Sam agreed hastily, following him up to the porch. "I'm just…saying."

"Yeah, I know what you're saying," Dean grumbled. He lifted his hand to knock on the door, but Brenna opened it before he could make contact, leaving him standing in her doorway, fist raised.

"You made it," she announced. "Good. Come with me." She grasped Dean's hand and pulled him inside. "You, too, Sam."

"Where are we going?" Sam asked as Dean stumbled along in her wake.

"My shop," Brenna called over her shoulder.

"Where's Aislinn?" Dean asked.

"Out back with Virgil," Brenna told him. "Didn't want her inside for this."

"This?" Dean asked. "What's this?"

He looked over his shoulder at Sam, cautiously curious and not a little concerned, but all Sam was able to do was not-so-helpfully shrug. Brenna led them through a door at the end of a short hallway, then paused as they entered, closing and locking the door behind them. Dean looked around. Along one wall were several mortar and pestles of different sizes, boxes with Celtic knots carved on the outside – if he didn't know better could easily be hex boxes – and bottles of various colored liquids.

On the other wall, Dean saw a cot, a bookshelf, and a trunk that was covered with more Celtic knots. Across from them was a large, stone fireplace with a fire burning and a small black cauldron hanging suspended over the flames from an iron hook. It was clear the place had been recently cleaned up. On the wall behind the cot, boards were fixed where windows used to be, and several of the mortar bowls were cracked and appeared glued back together.

"So this is your…shop," Dean said slowly.

"Go sit down on the cot," Brenna ordered, moving over toward the table and pulling a small pouch out of one of the boxes. She was pure motion, all business, and focused on a singular task.

"What are you doing?" Sam asked, his tone wary.

"You can grab one of the chairs, Sam. I want Dean on the cot."

"Uh, Brenna," Dean exchanged a look with his brother. "What the hell are you doing?"

Brenna turned around, surprise on her face. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Why do you want me on the cot?"

"You can stand if you want," she replied, shrugging. "But you look about ready to keel over, so I figured the cot would be easier."

"To do what?" Dean pressed, his brows furrowed.

Brenna arched a brow, her lips quirking. "Such a suspicious mind," she said softly. Her posture relaxing, she stepped slightly away from the table, her head tilted curiously. "You think I didn't notice how much pain you were in when we saw you this morning? You think I can't see you sweating from that fever you're trying to ignore?" She moved closer to Dean, not giving him time to back away, and placed soft fingers on his aching side. "The wound's infected, isn't it?"

Dean pulled his shoulders back, glancing guiltily at Sam.

"What?" Sam shot him a furious glance. "Is it?"

"Maybe," Dean deflected, stepping back from both his brother's ire and Brenna's hand. "A little."

"And you let us leave the clinic?" Sam advanced on him, hazel eyes hot.

"They gave me pills to take with me," Dean informed him.

"Oh, well, that's a friggin' relief," Sam grumbled, sarcasm lacing each word. "You have pills."

"I'm okay!" Dean protested, backing up further.

"No, you're not," Brenna and Sam retorted in unison.

Dean darted his eyes between them and sank down on the cot when he felt the backs of his legs hit the frame. Brenna turned back to her work table, sprinkled some herbs into the bottom of a ceramic mug, then moved toward the fire and used an iron hook to pull the cauldron toward her. Ladling some of the steaming liquid into the mug, she swirled it around three times, clockwise, then handed it to Sam.

"Drink this," she ordered. "It'll help with those aches you're still feeling and work on the taser burns. I also have some balm I want you to use later tonight, but not at the same time as this remedy."

"Why?" Sam asked, taking the mug from her.

"This particular solution is pretty potent and the combination of the two would leave you feeling high as a friggin' kite."

Dean blinked, his mouth tugging up in a grin. "Yeah, nobody wants that. You get all emotional when you're drunk."

"Better than you," Sam muttered, sniffing at the mug and pulling his head away quickly with a look of disgust. "You're an angry drunk."

"Hell, I'm angry sober."

Sam paused, then bounced his head in concession and sniffed the drink again. "God, Brenna, this stuff smells like rotten fruit."

Brenna didn't turn from the table where she was grinding up something in one of the bowls. "I didn't tell you to smell it; I told you to drink it. Bottom's up, big guy."

Sam glanced at Dean, who raised his hand, waving his fingers in an upward motion. Dean watched as Sam braced himself, then swallowed the concoction like a shot of whiskey, coughing in reaction. He set the mug on the table and rubbed his face.

"You okay?" Dean asked.

"Stuff tastes like ass," Sam grumbled.

Brenna turned away from the table and handed Sam a small, leather pouch. "Mix this with one cup of hot water and put it on your burns. There's enough here to last you several days, but you won't need it for the burns after tonight."

"What is it?"

"The purple goo, as you called it, that I gave you years ago."

Sam grinned. "That stuff was awesome."

"Of course it was," Brenna replied, shrugging as if to say, why wouldn't it be? "Okay, now, you can help me with your brother."

Dean frowned. "He doesn't need to help. I'll cooperate," he promised.

Brenna moved over to him, pulling a wooden stool in her wake. "I know you will," she said gently, "but I think this is going to hurt and I might need his help to brace you."

Dean looked up at Sam. "Okay, but…be careful," he warned, knowing he wouldn't have to tell his brother that he had no desire to fall inside the black nothing their connection tossed him to.

Sam nodded, moving around behind the cot, ready to grab Dean if needed. Brenna lifted Dean's shirt, rolling it and tucking it into itself to keep it in place, then slowly removed the bandages from around Dean's side. When they were fully exposed to the air, Dean winced, feeling the tender, hot skin react to the cooler environment.

"Well, that's just not pretty," Brenna muttered.

"Jesus, Dean," Sam whispered. "You have to have the highest pain threshold known to man."

"Oh, it hurts," Dean reassured him. "I just…don't let myself think about it."

"I'm not going to take the stitches out," Brenna told him. "Too afraid I won't be able to get them back in. So, you're going to have to reapply this later, okay?"

Dean nodded.

"Hang onto something," Brenna instructed. "This is going to remove the infection before it soothes the pain. Can't do both at the same time."

"'Course not," Dean muttered, jaw tight. "That would be too easy."

He gripped the edge of the cot as Brenna scooped up a handful of the purple goo from the mortar bowl, then gently began to apply it. At first he felt nothing, then the wound seemed to warm up slightly. As Brenna continued to work, though, Dean felt the balm sink into the infection as if it were seeking out the poison and pulling it from his body.

The effect was like cut glass scraped across the swollen skin and he stiffened, gritting his teeth with a groan. As the sensation intensified, he had to close his eyes, his jaw clenched and the groan turning into a sharp cry of pain. He barely felt Brenna's hands wrap around to his spine, the concentration of pain was so great.

He didn't register Sam at his back, holding his shoulders tight; he didn't register shaking the cot with his one-handed grip. He heard himself begin to swear, but it was as if it were coming from another person.

"Aw, fuck…fuck that hurts…son of a bitch…!"

"I know, I know, just breathe through it," Brenna was saying. "Not much longer…let it draw the poison out."

"Feels like it's fucking ripping it out of me!"

"I know it hurts, Dean," Brenna soothed, "just hang in there."

"Arrrrghhh!" His back arched and he bucked backwards, everything in him fighting to get away from the pain. His head slamming into something solid, belatedly realizing it was Sam's sternum.

"Sam," Brenna pleaded. "Help him."

"Dean, hey…," Sam spoke up suddenly, "remember when we were out at Pastor Jim's place when we were kids – the pond, remember?"

"Yeah," Dean gasped, his body tight, eyes pressed closed. He focused on the rumble of Sam's voice through his chest, the way his brother's hands on his shoulders seemed to brand him, the solid safety of feeling Sam at his back.

"Remember how we went fishing that one day and the storm came in?"

Dean remembered. It could have been yesterday. "Lightning," he managed to gasp out around the pain, rocking back once more, wanting instinctively to get away from it, having nowhere to go.

"Right," Sam laughed weakly. "Lightning hit the pond and we thought we were dead. Thought we were going to get fried. But it just killed a bunch of fish and we…scooped up dinner with a net. Said you never saw anything like it."

"Weird," Dean gasped, realizing the pain was starting to slowly, ever so slowly, abate.

"Scared Pastor Jim to death," Sam recalled. "Came in with scorch burns on the side of the boat, but not a mark on us."

"Lucky," Dean panted.

"Pastor Jim said we were blessed."

"'Course he did." He could feel Brenna brushing something against his skin and he blinked through tented lashes, peering down at her. "The hell?"

"The ingredient I added to draw the poison out is working," Brenna told him. "I'm just…cleaning it off."

Dean wrinkled his face in disgust as he realized she was literally removing the infection from his wound. As she did, however, he found he was able to sit slightly forward, away from Sam, and ease up on his grip of the cot. His body trembled from the let-down of adrenalin.

As Dean slowly uncoiled, Brenna continued to clean his skin and he saw that the swelling around the stitches was gone. His skin was still red, but it no longer felt like something was slowly devouring him from the inside out. He slumped to his left, needing the extra support of his elbow, and gave Brenna more access to his wound.

Sam never let go of his shoulders and Brenna tossed three rags to the side before the infection and balm had been completely cleaned away.

"There," she said, blowing an errant strand of hair away from her face, and slouching down on the wooden stool. She smiled at Dean. "That's better."

"I gotta do that again later?" he asked weakly.

"It won't hurt later," she promised. "Not like this, anyway. Might be sore, but it should feel pretty damn good after you put on the second application."

"Good," Dean reached up with a trembling hand and wiped the sweat from his face. Sam moved around from behind him and Dean glanced up. "Least I didn't have to drink the ass-potion."

Brenna smirked. "Would probably do you some good," she said.

"I don't want to be high as a kite," Dean shook his head. "Not right now."

Brenna nodded, understanding. "You feeling better?"

Dean took a quick mental stock. "Yeah, actually." When not cut down by fever and infection, his body had always managed to regroup quickly; which served him well as, until the amulet, it had been his only line of defense in protecting Sam.

"Good. How about some dinner?"

She wrapped his wound with fresh bandages and helped him tug his shirts back into place, giving Sam the herbs necessary for the later application, then led them back to the living room. Dean moved gingerly, testing out the flexibility of his side, realizing that if he were careful, he could move pretty easily without much discomfort.

They paused at a set of windows, looking out into Brenna's small back yard.

"These are the only windows in the whole place they didn't break," Brenna said.

Dean could see Virgil's red hat from where the man sat on the ground, his back to them, and worked on a small stick construction. Aislinn sat across from him, her small face knotted in concentration, her hair pulled back in a messy pony tail and a swipe of dirt across her nose. Lying nearby, tongue lolling in the late evening light, was a large, black Labrador retriever, its red collar standing out in stark contrast to its dark coat.

"You got a dog?" Sam asked with curious delight.

Dean smiled; his brother loved dogs. He'd always regretted never being able to get Sam a dog when they were kids.

"Not exactly," Brenna replied, smiling enigmatically. "I'll call Aislinn in and we can get dinner going."

She didn't move, didn't so much as open her mouth, but Dean saw Aislinn's head come up as if she'd heard something and her face blossomed into a smile. Climbing to her feet, she hurried around Virgil, who turned to face the house and Dean saw he had dirt on his face as well. The bruising around his eye had faded – from even since that morning – causing Dean to assume Brenna had her 'shop' open to more than the Winchesters that day.

Aislinn opened the back door, letting the screen bang shut behind her, and ran over to her mother, hugging Brenna's leg.

"You remember my friend Dean and his little brother?" Brenna asked, smoothing Aislinn's fly-away hair from her face.

Dean smiled, the description even more amusing with Sam towering over him as they stood behind Brenna.

"They're going to stay for dinner tonight, okay?"

Aislinn nodded.

"Okay, now go wash up – and make sure you get your face," Brenna called after the girl, who was already loping down the hall toward the bathroom.

Virgil came in and nodded to the boys, his eyes merry. "You get fixed up?"

"Yeah," Dean nodded. "Think we'll live."

"Well, I sure hope so," Virgil replied, his face serious, his eyes dancing. "I don't want to be the only pixie fort builder in this group."

Sam lifted a chin. "I happen to be an expert builder of pixie forts," he informed them.

"All uncles should be," Virgil replied.

Dean felt himself flash cold, then hot, his skin shivering as the reality of the situation they were in wrapped around him. He tried to keep his expression neutral, keep up with the banter, but his mouth had gone dry and he had an insane urge to bolt through the door. It was almost too much to truly comprehend.

"I got something for you," Virgil was saying to him, oblivious of his internal panic attack.

"Me?" Dean tilted his head, forcing himself to come back to the moment.

Virgil, glanced at Brenna, who nodded and moved back toward the kitchen, calling to Aislinn to join her when she got done in the bathroom. Virgil stuck his head out through the door and gave a sharp whistle. The black Lab stood and trotted forward immediately in response, stepping through the door, then sitting on the inside, eyes up, roaming the humans, until they rested quietly on Dean.

"This is Murphy," Virgil said, causally rubbing the dog's ears. "He's a service dog."

"Service dog?" Sam repeated, curiously.

"Guys I work with back in Denver are part of a program that trains dogs to help vets," he kept his blue eyes trained on Dean. "Specifically those with PTSD."

Dean looked down at Murphy, liking the way the dog looked back at him, as if simply waiting to hear what Dean was going to say.

"What do they do?" Sam asked, all business, between the two of them, the only one who seemed able to string together logical thought at the moment.

"Basically, Murphy is trained to stop nightmares," Virgil said, removing his hand from the dog's head and crossing his arms over his chest. "He can sense changes in your body – and will basically…nudge you back to normal."

"Changes?" Dean asked, his voice surprisingly weak.

"Change in breathing, or in heart rate associated with panic-attacks, nightmares, flashbacks," Virgil said. "You know those 'grey-outs'? Where you lose track of where you are or what you're doing?"

Dean felt Sam look at him and swallowed as he nodded.

"He can find you, bring you back."

"How come he's…available?" Sam asked.

Virgil rested his hand on the dog's head once more. "Murphy's six – which is middle-aged for a Lab – and his former owner died in a car accident about eight months ago. He's been a station dog, keeping his skills sharp, but he's hard to place with a recovering vet because he's blind in one eye."

That brought Dean's head up. "He's what?"

"His right eye has near-complete vision loss," Virgil said, tipping his chin down, but keeping his eyes on Dean. "When I told my pal about you, it seemed like a natural fit."

"What…what do I do?" Dean asked, looking down at Murphy. "How do I…?"

"He's yours," Virgil said. "I arranged all the paperwork, no need to worry about that. All you have to do is keep him with you. He'll get used to you; you'll get used to him. Dogs are sensitive animals; they can sense emotion with just a tone of voice. Murphy's a smart guy, too. He'll be good for you."

"But," Dean shot a look over at Sam. "What about…hunts? Where's he gonna stay?"

"We've got a house now, Dean," Sam reminded him. "And as far as hunts…," he lifted a shoulder, "we'll improvise."

"You're okay with this?" Dean asked him.

Sam smiled. "If Murphy can help you get some actual sleep once in a while, I'm more than okay with it."

Dean looked back at Virgil, then down at Murphy, who tilted his head curiously. "How about you, huh?" he asked the dog. "You okay with this?"

Murphy stood and moved over to Dean, sitting directly in front of him and pawed his leg. Sam chuckled and Dean crouched down in front of the dog, rubbing his ears and pulling his face up as Murphy began to lick him. He looked over a Sam.

"Guess we got a roommate," he told his brother.

Taking that as permission, Sam dropped down to the floor and called Murphy to him. As if recognizing one of his own, Murphy shifted his attention to Sam and rolled on the floor between Sam's outstretched legs, all seventy pounds of him practically climbing into Sam's lap. Dean laughed.

"Man," Brenna said, joining them. "That's a sound I haven't heard in a long time."

Sam looked up from the floor where he was busy rubbing Murphy's belly. "Me neither," he said with a happy smile.

Dean lifted a shoulder. "Been a long time since I felt like laughing, I guess," he replied.

"You staying for dinner?" Brenna asked Virgil.

The paramedic shook his head. "I gotta get back to Denver tonight," he said. "Just wanted to make sure you two were okay and drop off Murphy."

Dean frowned, suddenly at a loss as to what to say to this man who had been friend and ally.

"You're…leaving?" he asked.

Virgil looked down at Sam and Murphy, nodding. "I have a life there, man. A job. My boss got things worked out with the Union, but I've stretched things out a bit too long here." He looked up at Dean, then glanced over at Brenna, who was watching him with careful eyes. "I'm never far away," he said softly. "You know that."

"Yeah, I know," she replied, smiling at him as Sam stood up, Murphy moving to sit next to him.

Dean reached out his left hand, grasping Virgil's in a tight handshake. "I'm going to miss you, man."

Virgil tugged on Dean's arm, surprising him by pulling him into a one-armed hug, careful of his wounded side. Dean clapped the other man on the back before releasing him, but for a moment, Virgil held his hand tight, capturing his attention.

"Murphy will help you, but he isn't a cure-all," Virgil told him. "You got a long road ahead of you, and if it's even close to the one behind you, it's going to be tough."

Dean nodded, his brows pulled close over the bridge of his nose, his jaw tight.

"It'll probably hurt, and," he glanced over at Brenna as Aislinn joined them, leaning against her mother's leg and watching the adult exchange with serious eyes, "you might even want to give up." He released Dean's hand, but held his eyes. "Don't."

Dean swallowed. "I hear ya."

"Don't let your life beat you, man," Virgil said, reminding Dean oddly of Mason in that moment. "Use the pain; beat it right back."

"Thanks, man," Dean managed to say. "You saved our lives. I won't ever forget that."

Virgil smiled. "I know you won't." He looked over at Brenna, then back at Dean. "I know you'll do the right thing, Dean. For both of you. I love these girls," he paused, looking down, taking a breath, then looked back up, "like they were mine."

Dean nodded, unable to reply, knowing what the man was saying to him: choose wisely. You got a real shot at a good thing here; don't let this go. He offered Virgil a shaky smile.

Sam stepped forward, giving the blue-eyed man a strong hug. "Bye, Sinatra," he said, grinning.

"Bye, you big moose," Virgil replied, his voice muffled by Sam's shoulder. He stepped back. "You take care of your brother, okay?"

Dean looked over at Sam in surprise, seeing bemusement in his brother's eyes. It was probably the first time anyone had said that to him, Dean surmised.

"I will," he promised. "Thanks for the dog."

"I figured he wouldn't be a hard sell," Virgil grinned, turning to Aislinn and Brenna. "I'll be back in a few weeks. If you need me," he added. Brenna nodded, but didn't reply. Virgil looked down at Aislinn. "You be good for your mama, okay?"

Aislinn nodded, reaching out almost impulsively to grab Virgil's hand as she'd seen the grown-ups do. With that, and a tip of his ever-present red baseball hat, Virgil headed out the front door. For a moment, no one moved, then Aislinn turned and headed into the kitchen, Murphy on her heels.

Brenna took a breath, and said with her back to the brothers, "He's one of those guys who just lights up the world, y'know?"

"Yeah," Sam replied.

Dean nodded, though he knew Brenna couldn't see him. He knew what she meant; the place seemed dimmer without Virgil around. Sighing, she squared her shoulders and followed her daughter into the kitchen.

"We're having spaghetti and bread tonight," she called back to them. "It's Aislinn's specialty."

"You okay?" Sam asked quietly when Brenna was out of earshot.

Dean looked over at his brother. "I got no idea."

Sam nodded. "Fair enough. Can you make it through dinner?"

"And miss spaghetti and bread?" Dean smiled, seeing the tension immediately from Sam's tight shoulders. "Are you nuts?"

They headed in tandem to the kitchen, offering their help, following instructions, and Dean found himself momentarily lost in the easy rhythm of Brenna's life. She had the radio on and sang loudly and boisterously to the songs she knew, teasing the brothers into joining. Brenna sang slightly off-tune and Sam had always been a bit tone-deaf, so between the three of them they made Murphy howl and Aislinn laugh.

For a while, Dean forgot that there was anything outside of this room, this moment. Angel powers and demon scouts became part of someone else's past. Physical limitations became a non-issue. The ever-present fear of death and loss were things of myth. Dean felt peace for the first time since John died and he was happy. He had forgotten that he could even be happy.

It took longer to fix the meal than it did to eat it. Dean set his nearly-empty plate on the floor and let Murphy lick it clean, covering his lips with his finger when Aislinn caught him. She laughed delightedly.

"What's so funny, baby girl?" Brenna asked.

Aislinn closed her mouth and covered it with a conspirator's hand, glancing at Dean with a twinkle in her serious eyes. Brenna arched an eyebrow at him, but Dean lifted his hands innocently.

"You got me."

"Hmm," Brenna muttered. "How about you two go play a game while Sam and I clean up?" She suggested.

Dean looked over at Aislinn. "You like games?"

"She'll trounce you in checkers," Brenna warned him.

"You're that good, huh?" Dean asked the little girl. She nodded, smirking. He'd almost forgotten she didn't speak; she seemed to communicate so much. "Well, bring it on, kiddo!"

They moved into the living room and Murphy followed, lying on the floor next to Dean, his head resting on his paws. Dean glanced up at Sam who nodded back as he cleared the dishes from the table. Aislinn set up the game, making Dean black and herself red. Dean moved first.

"Y'know…, Sammy might not believe me, but when I was your age, I didn't really talk much."

Aislinn moved her checker piece, looking up at him.

"You're surprised too, huh?" Dean surmised. "Well, it's true. I didn't really have anyone to talk to until Sam came along." From the corner of his eye, Dean could see Sam and Brenna pausing in their clean up to watch, Brenna, holding a glass in her hand. "I wanted my little brother to learn how to talk, so I had to talk to him so he could hear my voice."

"I don't have a brother," Aislinn said, softly, but clear as day.

Dean blinked in surprise. He saw Sam dart forward and catch the glass that fell from Brenna's lax fingers before it hit the floor. She stepped forward, but didn't say a word, her eyes on her daughter. Dean decided to roll with it.

"Yeah, I know. But you've got your mama. I bet your mama would love to hear your voice."

"Do you have a mama?" Aislinn asked.

Dean jumped one of her red draughts, pulling it from the board. "Not anymore."

"Did you when you were little like me?"

"I did," he said, watching her jump two of his draughts, her eyes never leaving the checker board.

"Did she like your voice?"

"Yes, ma'am, she did."

Aislinn paused, considering her next move, then looked up at him, her expression pensive. Dean rested his forearms on his knees, waiting her out as she cupped her chin in her hand, her elbow propped on the coffee table next to the checker board.

"Did you sing?"

"No…," Dean shook his head slowly, wondering what she was seeing as she looked at him so seriously. "But she sang to me."

"My mama sings to me, too."

"Mamas are good like that."

As they continued to play, Dean looked up surreptitiously at Brenna, checking to make sure what he'd done was okay. He didn't know how significant it was that Aislinn had talked to him; Brenna had said she could talk…she just didn't. For all he knew, this happened with Virgil as well.

The tears on Brenna's face told him differently, though. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand, her eyes unreadable. Sam was watching him, as well, his face serious.

"You have spots," Aislinn said, sliding her third draught to his back line, forcing him to King the piece.

"Spots?" Dean asked, pulling his attention back to the little girl.

Without looking up from the checker board, Aislinn ran a finger over the bridge of her nose. "Like me."

Dean chuckled. "Yeah, I do."

"Mama doesn't have spots."

"Nope."

They played for a few more minutes in silence and Dean saw he was clearly losing the game, but he couldn't concentrate on his moves. He simply watched her think, watched her little hands grasp the checker pieces, watched how her tongue darted out between her lips as if for balance, watched her brow knit in concentration and her head tilt as she made her move. He couldn't seem to fill his eyes enough.

"I caught you," she said suddenly.

Dean blinked back to awareness, and looked down. If this had been chess, it would have been check mate.

"Yeah, you did."

Aislinn looked up. "I'll let you go."

"You will?" Dean asked, looking at her curiously. "Why? Jump my last man and you win."

Aislinn smiled at him and he felt something hit his mind, like a quick, happy kiss. "If I let you go, you'll come back and play again."

Dean looked up, meeting Sam's eyes, then looked over at Brenna. He had no idea what to say.

"Okay, my girl," Brenna spoke up. "Time for bed. Say goodnight to our guests and go brush your teeth and get in your PJs. I'll be back to tuck you in."

Aislinn stood up and turned to go, but paused. She turned back and bent down to rub Murphy's head, then leaned over the dog, reaching for Dean. Instinctively, Dean grasped her, his right hand awkward as he lifted her over the sleeping dog. She wrapped her arms around his neck in a hard hug. After a beat, Dean wrapped his arms around her small body, holding her close, breathing her in.

He closed his eyes against the rush of emotion that threatened to roll him over and released her the moment she let go of him, telling her goodnight. She waved happily at Sam, then trotted down the hall toward the bathroom once more. Dean looked over at Brenna, not quite yet able to stand.

Her chin trembled, and she visibly pulled herself together. "I'll be back out in a bit," she said. "There's beer in the fridge. You can wait outside on the porch, if you want." She pressed her lips out, stifling her emotion, then forced herself to smile.

Dean joined Sam in the kitchen after Brenna left. Without a word, Sam grabbed two beers from the fridge, popped off the caps, and handed one to Dean. They moved to the back porch, Murphy following closely, and sat silently on the rails, staring up at the star-studded night sky, the silence filled with so much noise, so many thoughts, Dean didn't know which thread to pick up and follow.

After a few moments, they heard something coming from one of the boarded up windows to the left of the porch. Dean tilted his head and Sam moved closer.

"Singing," he said.

Dean nodded, listening. Her voice wasn't off-tune this time. It slipped under his skin and settled down around his heart, near the hollow that had been inside of him since Stull.

"Of all the money that e'er I had, I've spent it in good company. And all the harm that e'er I've done, alas it was to none but me. And all I've done for want of wit to memory now I can't recall. So fill to me the parting glass. Good night and joy be with you all."

She paused and Dean waited, holding his breath, not wanting the moment to end. Because when the song was over, a decision had to be made, and he wasn't ready. He just wasn't ready.

"Of all the comrades that e'er I had, they are sorry for my going away. And all the sweethearts that e'er I had, they would wish me one more day to stay. But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise and you should not, I'll gently rise and I'll softly call, good night and joy be with you all."

"Wonder why she didn't sing in Gaelic," Sam mused.

"Huh?"

Sam turned, resting his backside on the railing, looking down at his beer. "She sang that to you, in the tunnel. Said it was Aislinn's favorite song. It calmed you down."

"It did?"

Sam nodded. "But she said it in Gaelic."

Dean frowned. He didn't remember a song; he just remembered the light, the pain, and voices reassuring him that they were getting the hell out of the dark. He set his beer down, dragging a hand down his face.

Brenna stepped out onto the porch, her eyes on Dean.

"I'll go…finish up the dishes," Sam said, not looking at either of them.

When Sam was gone, Dean took a breath, his mind filled with so many words, so many directions, he didn't know which one to pick. He stood at a crossroads, a wooden sign with arrows pointing to paths marked The Right Way and The Decent Way and The Way You Want To Go and The Way You Think You Should Go and The Way Your Life Usually Goes…. He stared at Brenna, helpless.

"You were never part of the equation," she said finally. "And I was doing just fine on my own, raising her."

Dean narrowed his eyes, pressing his lips together as he looked out across the night.

"Okay, until I started on this latest quest, that is," she amended. "But even then, my girl was safe."

"Never said she wasn't," Dean replied.

"I thought about how to tell her she had a daddy," Brenna continued. "But it was more around me possibly meeting someone someday. Not…you coming back from the dead. I mean…who does that?"

"Crazy people," Dean replied quietly.

"Crazy people," she agreed. "And Dean, your life…what you've had to do...what I saw when I looked into you. It scares me. It scares me for her."

"I know," Dean agreed.

Brenna sighed, wrapping her arms around herself and leaning a shoulder on the post that lead to the stairs down into the yard. "After all that happened…we can't stay here. They may have realized they made a mistake, but this town was two beats away from burning me at the stake before you guys showed up. I just…don't know where we're going yet."

"Denver?" Dean hedged.

Without looking at him, Brenna shook her head. "I need to set Virgil free. I can't keep doing this to him…it's wrong and painful and unfair. I can't keep holding onto him like he's the edge of my pool. I gotta tread water like a big girl."

You could come with me…you could come to Lawrence.

The words were on the tip of his tongue; he wanted to say them, but something held him back. He let her work her way through to the next thought, not speaking up, not staking his claim. What right did he have asking her to be part of his nightmares, his constant pain, the threat of demons and false promises of angels?

"I don't know if I love you," she said quietly, surprising him. "I did, before you died. But…so much has happened since then…I don't know anymore." She rotated to face him, the starlight turning her cheeks pale, her eyes luminous. "But I think I could."

Dean just watched her, unable to move, barely breathing as he listened.

"And I know she could."

He glanced toward the house. "Do you think…she knows?"

"You mean…knows like…like how you knew?"

Dean nodded.

"Maybe," Brenna replied. "I think she knows something…or at least senses something. I've never seen her respond to anyone like that before. And she said more to you tonight than she's said to me in the last year."

Dean rubbed at his scarred palm, wondering when he'd stop seeing the blood there. "There's…stuff. Waiting for us back in Lawrence. Sam has a girl back there, and we have friends who might be in trouble." He looked up. "Because of us."

She nodded, silently.

"And this…power," he held out his scarred hand to her. "I don't know what to do with it. I have to find out what it means before—"

She reached out and grabbed his hand, pressing on his scar and causing him to gasp as her vision flooded him, slipping into his mind and showing him what she saw: him, wrapped in light, his eyes fierce and glowing, his hand out and darkness fleeing.

Releasing him, she took a shuddering breath, lifting her bird-like eyes to his. He trembled, not seeing anything but her in this moment, but knowing she saw so much more. As he watched, her eyes shrank, going normal once more.

"You have to go," she said.

"I know," he replied, feeling inexplicably devastated to hear the truth he already knew spoken out loud.

"But…," she amended. "You don't have to stay gone."

"Okay," he agreed.

She looked away. "You ever think life will get small enough three people can fit inside it and not get lost?"

"I hope so," he whispered, stepping forward and wrapping his arms around her, burying her face against his chest. If nothing else, he wanted to make it fit.

When they went inside, Sam had the kitchen cleaned up and was sitting on the arm of the couch, his jacket on and Dean's in his hand.

"We gotta go," Dean told him.

"I figured," Sam replied, handing him his jacket. "I checked your pockets," he said. "It's still there."

Dean offered his brother a small, tremulous smile. "You're a good man, Sammy."

"I'll be in the car," Sam replied, standing up. He grabbed Brenna and pulled her in for a hug. "I think this is the first time I've ever hugged you goodbye," he told her.

She nodded as she stepped away. "You're usually threatening me with bodily harm if I hurt your brother," she recalled. "It's a nice change."

"Eh, don't get used to it," Sam smiled at her. "I'm sure I'll be threatening you again at some point." He called to Murphy and the two of them headed to the door. "Take your time," he called to Dean.

When Sam left, Dean pulled the worn envelope from the pocket of his jacket, looking down at it. "A couple of years ago," he started, "things got really bad. Sam and me were vessels for archangels, and we were trying to stop the Apocalypse…," he glanced up at her.

She lifted an eyebrow. "So…just another day at the office, then?"

He smiled ruefully. "Thing is, this was one of those times I couldn't find my way out," he confessed. "And I thought the only thing I could do to save everyone a helluva lot of pain…was to give myself up. Sacrificing me seemed like small potatoes compared to what it looked like would happen."

She frowned. "Yeah, but…what would the world be like with no Dean Winchester in it?"

He shrugged. "I wasn't here for four months; you had a baby in that time. The world kept turning."

"It wasn't the same world," she replied. "It was darker without you here."

"Like with Virge, you mean?"

"Kinda. His light fills up a room," she looked directly at him. "Your light hits everyone in it."

Dean unfolded the envelope, feeling along the worn edges one last time. "There was a moment when I was ready to let it all go. I left Sam when he wasn't looking, found a hotel room, and packed all my stuff into a box. And I," he handed the envelope to her. "I wrote this."

She took it gingerly, like it might burn her.

"Even though all that Apocalypse stuff is over and done, I want you to read it," he said. "Because I don't know what's going to happen next. But everything I say in there is still true today."

"You're going to figure out this angel power thing and come find me," she said. "That's what's going to happen next."

"I hope so," Dean replied. "I really do."

A frown turning her eyes liquid, Brenna reached for him and in that moment Dean stepped forward, as if drawn by a magnetic pull. She grabbed the back of his neck, pulling his face close to hers, and pressed her lips against his. Instinctively, his arms came around her, keeping her close to him, bracing them both. It wasn't a tentative kiss; it was desperate and lonely and full of need. He felt every lost year, every yesterday, every if only pour from her and into him and fed her with the undefined ache that formed a wall around his heart.

She pressed close to him for another moment, searing him with hungry lips and gripping hands, then stepped back, pushing him from her and turning away. Unbalanced, gasping slightly for breath, Dean grabbed his coat and headed for the door. He paused just before he turned the handle.

"I'll see ya," he promised.

Glancing at him over her shoulder, eyes fierce with that promise, Brenna replied, "I know."

Sam was waiting for him, sitting behind the wheel. Murphy was in the backseat, his head on his paws. He lifted his head when Dean climbed in, but didn't make a sound. Dean looked over at his brother.

"Want to find a hotel?" Sam asked. "It's late."

"You okay to just drive for a while?" Dean asked. He needed to move, to get away from everything and breathe.

"Yeah," Sam replied, putting the car into gear and heading down the mountain road.

They got to the other side of Denver before they had to stop for gas. Sam mixed the balm as Brenna had instructed and they applied it to their various wounds in the bathroom of the gas station. Dean was glad to see that the red marks of the taser that had been so ugly just that morning were nearly faded from Sam's skin.

Sam remarked how the red around his stitches was starting to fade as he watched Dean apply the purple goo and re-wrapped his torso.

"She should bottle this stuff and sell it," Sam remarked. "She'd be set for life."

"I think that's what she was trying to do in Argo," Dean replied. "Only…she went about it all wrong. Towns people were ready to toss her into a pond to see if she floated."

"So we're back to Monty Python, are we?" Sam commented, helping Dean to fasten the bandage in place now that Dean's skin was covered.

"If it ain't broke…," Dean shrugged, leading the way back to the car and taking his turn behind the wheel.

They made it just outside of Limon before Dean had to pull over and get a few hours sleep. They found a rest stop and parked, slumping to either side of the front seat, arms tucked into their jackets. The nightmare seemed to have been waiting for him to slip into the dark, lurking like a hunter in the shadows. He knew hunters; he knew how they worked and these dreams were like an entity unto themselves.

He felt the terror return, cold and fierce, grabbing him and throwing him into the Pit where the screams and blood and pain waited. He searched for the blue light, the moth-like figure that seemed to offer salvation, even the image of Sam spinning away from him. Something that he could grab onto and ride out of the black. But the only thing that came were demons, wraiths, vampires, vengeful spirits, reaching for him, pulling at him, tearing him apart…licking him.

Dean jerked awake, disoriented and confused, staring around him. Sam was slumped against the passenger door, asleep. The edge of night was disappearing, the sun beginning to take over the flat of the plains around them. And the big, pink, wet tongue of a dog was bathing the side of his face.

"Okay, okay," Dean lifted his arm in defense, pushing Murphy away. He wiped his cheek, then turned toward the dog who was leaning over the edge of the seat, his paws on the back, his muzzle close to Dean's face, still worried. Dean reached up and rubbed Murphy's ears. "I'm okay. Thanks, boy. I'm okay."

Slightly mollified by Dean's ear-rub, Murphy sank back to his haunches, but didn't pull his attention from Dean.

"You probably need to go outside, huh?"

Dean opened the door, the creak waking Sam.

"What's goin' on?" Sam muttered, rubbing his eyes and looking around.

"Murphy's earning his keep," Dean replied, shrugging. "Gonna take him out for a little walk."

Sam watched him with solemn eyes. "Okay. I'll see what the vending machine has for breakfast."

Four hours later, they were back in Lawrence. The town looked smaller, somehow. The streets familiar and oddly welcoming. Dean felt Sam relax next to him, his smile one of anticipation as he pulled out his phone to call Stella and check in. Parking in front of their rented house, Dean realized that they'd only been gone a little over a week.

"Feels like forever," he said softly.

"I know what you mean," Sam replied, hanging up his phone. "I kinda missed this place."

"Me, too."

They got out of the car, grabbing their duffels from the back. Sam collected the extra bag of weapons and Dean whistled to Murphy, heading up to the door. Once inside, they dropped their duffels on the couch, both sighing with relief to be back in one piece as Murphy trotted from room to room, sniffing and inspecting.

"Does it feel like all that happened to someone else?" Sam asked suddenly.

Dean looked over at his brother, huffing out a laugh. "Kinda," he replied. "Except for this," he motioned to his side.

"Always something there to remind us, huh?" Sam sighed.

Suddenly Murphy bolted toward the living room, growling, the hair along his back standing at attention. The brothers frowned at him.

"What is it?" Dean asked the dog.

A three-beat knock sounded at the door. Dean shot a look at Sam, then back at Murphy who was now showing teeth. Looking back at Sam, Dean nodded to the duffel of weapons, grabbing the Colt 1911 from the air when Sam tossed it his way. Holding his Glock at the ready, Sam moved to the door, opening it wide enough both he and Dean could train their weapons on whoever was waiting on the other side.

"Hello, boys."


a/n: The song Brenna sings is called "The Parting Glass." It's an old Irish tune and my favorite rendition of it is by the Wailin' Jennys. Fanfic isn't playing nice with the vid link I was going to share with you, but if you go to where this story and chapter is posted on my LJ, you can get the link.

Hope you're still enjoying! See you in a couple weeks. Three more chapters to go!